I am pleased to bring this debate to where it properly belongs, that is, in Dáil Éireann. I want to outline the work of the Joint Committee on Marriage Breakdown, but before I do this I want to touch briefly on how we reached the view that we arrived at. I must confess that I had no great understanding of the whole issue of marriage breakdown before this committee were formed. It gives me no great pride to say that all of us, whether politicians or not, tend not to become involved in issues which do not affect us personally. The plight of the tens of thousands of people who have broken marriages has touched us now. I feel that I can speak for all the members of the committee when I say that we got a profound understanding of what life is like for those unfortunate enough to have broken marriages.
Throughout the 18 months of the committee's meetings, all of us became deeply involved in the real social issues. So what kept us talking so long? Why did we have to come before the Dáil and seek extensions to the life of our committee? In short, the sheer complexity of the subject became apparent to us only as we got to grips with what was involved. We heard oral submissions and we read written submissions. Many of these were the considered views of groups of people. Some were well thought out personal views. But underneath we had very little knowledge at the outset of the wide range of social problems besetting family life in this country. I now admit to a more mature approach to finding lasting and worthwhile solutions. Our determination to produce a considered, comprehensive report ensured that our deliberations lasted for a much longer period than was thought to be necessary at first. I am grateful to this House and, indeed, to the Seanad for allowing us the extensions as requested.
The committee, of course, recognised the gravity and sensitivity of this important social area and consequently knew that both Houses of the Oireachtas would not welcome a report that was hasty and injudiciously compiled. I would like at this stage to pay tribute to the many people who helped to bring this report to its final conclusion. First, I should like to pay tribute to the wonderful committee for the work they did over the very long period of 18 months, sometimes for as long as eight hours a day. Not alone were they a committee dedicated to their task, but they were unique in so far as they represented a very wide area — intellectual, health, educational and legal. Such qualifications made a major contribution to this report.
I should like to pay tribute to the many people who made written and oral submissions. Those people are deserving of the greatest tribute we can pay them. It is difficult for any man or woman to express their views to a committee, particularly knowing that they would go on the record, and I pay tribute to them. It was clear that many people were aware of the major social problem. I should like to pay tribute also to our eminent guest, Dr. Jack Dominian, senior psychiatrist of the Central Middlesex Hospital, England, and to thank him for coming such a long way at short notice and giving us the benefit of his knowledge and experience. I know each member of the committee would endorse the tribute I pay to him. I should like to avail of this opportunity to thank the national and local papers for the very wide coverage they gave us particularly when we advertised for people to make submissions. At that stage they made a major contribution to the beginning of our discussions because people became aware that contributions and submissions were welcome from everybody.
I should like to thank our consultant, Mr. Gerry Durkan, our Secretary, Mr. Rory MacCabe, and Mr. Seamus Phelan who came in at a late stage when we really needed help. They gave us of their best at all times. Last but not least I should like to thank the press who were always available to give us the publicity so essential to the success of our work.
One might ask: what did the committee achieve? May I remind the House of our terms of reference, part of which read:
to consider the protection of marriage, and of family life, and to examine the problems which follow the breakdown of marriage, and to report to the Houses of the Oireachtas thereon.
I am glad to be able to say that we have honoured that commitment.
Public attention was focused on the single word "divorce". When I became a member of the committee I never envisaged being a member of a divorce committee. It was often described as a divorce committee. I understood we had been established as a committee to examine the many problems confronting many families throughout the country. Of course divorce was one of the many issues we discussed. I have said it before, and take this opportunity to repeat, that it was not the focus of our discussions. Had the committee spent their time looking at divorce and divorce only, our deliberations would not have lasted so long. We would have needed no extensions or would not have sat for 18 months.
I should like every Member of the House who has an interest in the report of the committee to express honestly his or her views. I believe that every Member of both Houses of the Oireachtas, and many people throughout the country, have a deep interest in the contents of this report. I am sure the vast majority of Members will welcome most of the findings of the committee. I recognise that, in every party in this House, there are widely differing views on the more controversial aspects of the report of the committee. Bearing in mind the volume of input to this report and the work of the committee, I ask each Member to read the report carefully and, having done so, to express their views on what it contains.
Our society is deeply divided on the controversial issue of divorce. This debate may shed enough light on the matter to bring about a consensus. Let us be honest with ourselves and admit openly that all political parties are divided on this issue as well as everybody else. There are as many views as there are Deputies. I ask all Members not to allow this debate to become a farce. I do not want to hear set speeches whose sole purpose is to support a party line. If that should happen, then the members of the committee and I will have wasted our time. Mind you, as a committee, we had our problems. That is only natural — one will have problems within one's own party — and anybody who stands up here representing any party who tells us that he or she has no problems in his or her party on certain issues is telling lies. It is difficult within any party to obtain maximum or full approval, to obtain the unanimous views of three parties plus Independents. I should like to pay tribute to the parties. They forgot the political issues; they put the social issue foremost and were conscious of their task at all times. I do not think I could say that too often.
I should like this House to treat this major social issue with the respect it deserves. I believe that the report of the committee constitutes a valuable basis for this debate. I might quote here part of the Introduction to our Report in Chapter 1 where it is said:
The Committee recognised the preeminent desire of all concerned to ensure in so far as possible the preservation and protection of marriage. The majority of marriages which are contracted in the State are, and remain, viable and stable. The Committee emphasised the need to ensure that the social and legal infrastructure of the State should not work to increase the pressure which can be placed on marriage and much of the Committee's deliberations consequently focused on the protection of marriage and of family life.
The committee acknowledged that the present law does not provide adequate protection for those persons whose marriages do not remain viable and that this, in itself, is a threat to marriage.
Chapter 2 is entitled Marriage and the Family — The Legal and Constitutional Position. I shall not go through this in any detail. I would be unable to do so in 45 minutes anyway. It is an extremely difficult exercise because one would need to be a lawyer, many aspects being very difficult for the legal people much less the ordinary layman. As I have said, Chapter 2 sets out the legal and constitutional position of the marriage and the family in our State. Some submissions received by the committee referred to the extramarital unions which are occurring in the State.
The committee expressed concern at the increasing number of families in the State which have no protection under the constitutional definition of "family". These unions take many forms. There are single people living together. There are married persons who are separated and are living with single persons or with other separated persons. This is indeed a serious matter and calls for some immediate attention. I am not suggesting how we should go about it, but I am quite sure that, when this report has been read and listened to — and I am quite sure the media will resort to it as far as possible to enlighten many people throughout the country — if we succeed in elucidating some of this we shall have done a good job.
Chapter 3 is entitled The Protection of Marriage and Family Life and the factors which contribute to the breakdown of marriage are there dealt with in detail. It says:
This chapter concentrates on the prevention of marriage breakdown and, to a large extent, draws on the information received by the Committee and observations made by the Committee in other areas of this report. Such observations deal with the universally accepted causes of breakdown — personality defects, differing degrees of maturity, basic incompatibility of parties, all of which may be often manifested by argument, discord, alcohol and drug abuse, violence and cruelty, both mental and physical. The committee see the role which the
State plays through the education system in this area as complementary to the primary responsibility which is placed on parents. In an oral submission to the committee, Dr. Jack Dominian, senior psychiatrist at the Central Middlesex Hospital, said:
My image of the prevention of marital breakdown starts in the family. I would like to see the family as being the model. In regard to the schools, I have said again and again that in addition to "The Three R's" I want a fourth "R" which stands for relationships to be an essential part of education in schools. We are doing research at the moment. I am not saying that you can teach boys and girls about marriage, beacuse it is too big a step for that age group, but you can teach them about personal relationships, about trust, about communications, about affection and about understanding. I would like to see that, which is the infrastructure of marriage, being an essential part of education.
The committee recognised the role which is played by churches, schools, voluntary groups, third level and other educational institutions in this area. This work needs to be developed, augmented and financially supported. In addition to formal education and the education which is given in the home, the committee feel that the State has a special responsibility at the immediate pre-marriage stage. From the time they formally declare their intention of marrying by notifying a clergyman or applying to a registrar with powers to solemnise civil marriages, the parties should have access to a pre-marrige guidance service and be positively encouraged to avail of such a service.
With regard to counselling, the committee are concerned that support for marriage, especially during the early years when marriages can be most vulnerable, is at best inadequate. The committee are of the opinion that the State is obliged to ensure that the educational system provides a means to educate persons for marrige and that there is an easily accessible and effective counselling service available to married persons.
The committee considered that changes in the present law should be made to take account of the lowering of the age of majority to 18 years; changes in the pattern of the age at which people are marrying at present; the desirability of fixing a minimum age for marriage which would reflect the widely held view that marriages involving young persons are at greater risk than other marriages and the need to ensure that marriage is with full and free consent and with full understanding of its nature and implications, social, economic and legal. Indeed, it is not necessary to carry out a major survey to ascertain that younger people are more vulnerable with regard to the breakdown of marriage because they do not fully realise the responsibility thay are taking on. The committee are of the opinion that the free age for marriage, that is, the age at which a person can freely contract a valid marriage without any prior requirement for parental consent should be reduced from 21 years to 18 years.
The committee felt it was desirable to examine in detail the question of how and why marriages break down in order to place the many elements of breakdown in the context of their opinions and observations on how best to protect marriage and family life and to deal with problems caused by marriage breakdown. From submissions received by the committee, the scale and extent of problems caused by marriage breakdown are considerable. The social and emotional costs of broken marriages are high. There are marital and psychiatric disorders, of which depression is the most commonly cited. Long term effects on children of broken marriages include increased risk of delinquency and disruption in their own subsequent marriages.
However, these findings disguise the fact that the ending of a marriage is frequently preceded by intense conflict and there is a substantial body of evidence that destructive parental interaction is associated with delinquency and disturbance in children rather than separation or divorce. Thus, for many spouses and some children, the ending of the marriage brings relief from tension and hostility. Nonetheless, the process of adjustment to the ending of a marriage for spouses and children is painful and may be lengthy especially when accompanied by on-going recrimination. However, it has been ascertained that the children would prefer to have their parents and do not want either to go and that is understandable.
We are all aware of second unions being entered into and continued with every appearance of stability and happiness in which the partners beget and raise children. While possessing all the appearances of a regular family, the second union does not have State recognition or protection as a marriage. When it is remembered that at least one of the partners to such a union has a living spouse with whom at an earlier date marriage vows were exchanged and if the number of such second unions taking place was small, the norm of marriage as a commitment for life, come what may, could still be seen as that accepted by society in general.
The legal remedies were given very comprehensive consideration in the report. I draw the attention of all Members to this chapter, especially those who intend to contribute to this debate. The committee note that judicial developments which have attempted to update the law over the last ten years have introduced a certain measure of legal confusion which is open to different interpretation. In considering the grounds for obtaining a decree of nullity, the committee were very much influenced by the recommendation of the Law Reform Committee on Nullity. The report treats that area in great depth.
In regard to judicial separation, the committee took serious note of the proposals of the Law Reform Commission and were unanimously of the view that irretrievable marriage breakdown could be one ground for judicial separation. In making this recommendation they set out in detail in Chapter 7 of the report the conditions which cause irretrievable marriage breakdown. In the circumstances of such breakdown, many other social problems were considered at length and definite recommendations made in regard to maintenance, guardianship, custody of children and the sharing of matrimonial property. Barring orders, which are now widely used in family disputes, were fully considered by the committee and their opinion is clearly set out in the report.
The committee made very comprehensive recommendations regarding a new family courts structure. They found that existing structures to deal with family disputes were grossly inadequate and outdated. They set out in great detail the objectives of family courts, their structures, staffing and welfare services. The cost of such a system should not be a compelling factor against the setting up of such a system.
A recurrent theme in many of the submissions made by the various groups to the committee was the need for some form of mediation service to be available to parties involved in marital disputes. Mediation was chosen with considerable care. It should be pointed out here that reconciliation and conciliation have different meanings. I draw attention to the considerable value of such a mediation service as set out in chapter 8 of the report.
I come now to the section of the report which perhaps attracted the greatest level of media attention, that is, the section dealing with the dissolution of marriage and the legal difficulties that would accommodate divorce. The committee examined more than 700 submissions and listened to the oral evidence of 24 different groups. Arguments for and against divorce formed an important opinion in each and every one of the submissions.
As chairman, I was impressed by the many submissions made. It would be difficult to say which was the most impressive. However, there are two I should like to mention. Both of the groups involved held different viewpoints but in spite of that they made honest and sincere contributions. Irrespective of their beliefs, it was obvious that they were speaking from their hearts.
I should like to mention the contribution made by the Knock Marriage Advice Bureau against divorce and the case made by the Church of Ireland for divorce. All the submissions were made sincerely. After this the people must decide what is to happen. Many of the written and oral submissions received referred to the constitutional prohibition on divorce. Some argued in favour of a referendum on the issue while others argued against it. It is not possible for me in presenting this report to the Dáil to refer to the many excellent contributions of so many concerned and interested people. There were many compelling arguments for divorce but there were equally compelling arguments against it.
Having considered the submissions and bearing in mind the facts set out above, the committee were of the view that a referendum should be held. This was a decision of the majority of the committee. A minority of the committee believed that the matter should be decided by the Oireachtas as a whole without a recommendation from the committee.
I hope I have outlined the position. I know that many Members are interested in the matter and I am sure there will be many speakers today. I am recommending this report to the House. I know it has the approval of every member of the committee and I know that at the conclusion of the debate it will have the approval of every Member of both Houses of the Oireachtas.