Last night I said that no-one likes to be positive on a subject like this. No-one can feel anything but diffident about it. I imagine that not many Deputies, even though they will be willing to disclose what they intend to do themselves, will be anxious to twist other people's arms to do so. Any such attempt will be futile. This is the kind of issue on which people will pretty well have made their minds up long before this Bill entered the House. Everyone has a difficulty in speaking on a theme like this. Everybody in the House is adult. The majority of the House are married and some are grandparents or certainly in the age group where they could be grandparents. They have all gathered experience of all kinds in life. Everybody metabolises his experiences differently depending on the character and the temperament which his own genetic inheritance and his own upbringing have left him with. Therefore we do not all have the same opinion about a matter like this. It is something that no-one can feel confident in lecturing other people about. I do not wish to say anything hurtful but I wonder how many Deputies there are who have spoken or will speak on the subject whose wives or husbands read with a grim and cynical eye what their spouses are purported as having said here on the subject of marriage. That consideration would prevent me from lecturing anyone on it and I hope it will prevent others from taking a lecturing stance.
I wish to explain but not at excessive length — I am not going to make a hog of myself with time because one Deputy spoke for an hour and three quarters yesterday and another for over an hour — why I will support this amendment but not on the broad general grounds which I have heard argued from those benches in the last couple of days. I would like to point out that the Constitution of this State, which is what we are talking about, contains very few positive prohibitions on what the Oireachtas may do. There is a general prohibition in Article 15 on the enactment of unconstitutional legislation. There are very few specific prohibitions otherwise. I can think of only two: the one we are talking about, the prohibition on the enactment of legislation to grant the dissolution of marriage, the other is a prohibition which was also in the 1922 Constitution and which corresponds with a conception of natural justice, namely, that one ought not apply a criminal sanction retroactively so as to punish somebody for an act which was not in fact criminal at the time it was committed.
Let us look back at the history of the State. The former Constitution — and I am a great admirer of it — was a secular Constitution. Not alone was religion not mentioned in it apart from a brief reference to everybody's freedom of worship but God was not mentioned in it anywhere. There was a brief invocation in the Act to which the Constitution was scheduled but the Constitution was entirely secular. It contained the specific prohibition on retroactive penal sanctions but it did not contain a prohibition on the enactment of divorce legislation. Did morality fall to pieces under William Cosgrave who was President of the Executive Council or Taoiseach for the first ten years of the State or under Éamon de Valera who was Taoiseach during the remaining five years of that Constitution's existence? Did we have the bacchanalia that I have heard being predicted by Deputies on both sides at a time when the Constitution contained no prohibition of any kind on the enactment of this kind of legislation? I am not going to make pretences about the period 1922-37. There was no divorce legislation enacted. At that time the only way one could have dissolved a marriage was by an Act of the Oireachtas. In Ireland there never had been a divorce jurisdiction. Under British rule there never was a divorce jurisdiction here under which the courts could dissolve a marriage. The early Irish, under the Brehon laws, had divorce very freely available — it was freely available to both sexes and there were a large number of humane grounds on which a wife was empowered to free herself from her husband. I will not entertain the House by reciting the instances.
So long as the common law here was influenced by Christianity there never was a divorce jurisdiction in the sense of a power in the courts to dissolve marriages, but there was a very strong feeling against divorce. It was so strong that in 1924 three private Bills were lodged with the Examiner in this House which proposed to dissolve three specific marriages — in other words, parliamentary divorce of a kind which had been necessary even in Britain since 1857. The outrage then, a kind of silent outrage, was so intense that the Bills had to be withdrawn. In other words, it was not the absence of a prohibition in the Constitution on divorce legislation that kept divorce off the table: it was the absolute repugnance of the population generally at the very thought of such a thing. It was public opinion, massive, cliff-like, immovable, that made the difference, not anything written in black and white.
That is what has changed. Much of the discussion on what is in black and white in the Constitution is beside the point because law is rather like a flimsy barrier, any form of law, including criminal law: it will withstand a certain pressure when it builds up like a build up of dammed waters, dammed opinion. However, it will not withstand any excessive pressure. The flood of opinion will simply roll over it and it will pass into a limbo like many of our laws because they were never enforced. I observe that this law already has passed into a sort of limbo. I know several couples both of whom were previously married to other people and who now, to all intents and purposes and as far as I know, are married to one another. No one asks how that can happen or how it happened: people are too well mannered to say, "Did you get divorce, where, and how, and what did it cost?" People have enough respect for each other's privacy to do that.
I can tell you that the water is running over the dam in a huge volume at this moment, perhaps not in every area in the country and not in every grade of society, but it is trickling through faster than a man's hand would be able to stop the hole in that dyke.
Most of us find it hard to accept change in the world we live in, the kind of society we had here in the early days of the State. When I was a schoolboy of 15 years I was standing around attentively with a group of others of my age when we were being visited by the Archbishop of Cashel in whose diocese the school was. I distinctly remember him saying, and I was amused at the reflection on the Irish people: "We enjoy an immunity, an isolation, from the outside world". Looked at purely from the perspective of sexual morality, marital morality and all matters of that kind, of course he was right and I do not quarrel with his use of words. But the attitude that we were particularly favoured by God in our isolation I do not share. I have often spoken about the damage it has done to us in material respects that we do not know anything about let alone accept the standards of the outside world. The absence of possession of personal prosperity underlies a great many of the broken marriages we have been hearing about here this week.
As an even younger child I remember going, sometimes more than once a year, to a small village in the west of Ireland where my mother's people lived. The land for the golf club there had been given to the local people by the local Anglo-Irish landlord. Everybody in the little village was a member of the golf club, including the clergy. That local landlord donated a cup for competition to the golf club. Subsequently he went off to England — he may have lived in England — and was divorced, and the clergy of the village refused to play golf on the days when that cup was being competed for. I am not making fun of them. They felt it necessary, and their flock understood their feeling of necessity, to put a distance between them and the faintest contamination by a form of existence which they utterly rejected and which they were in duty bound to let their flock know they objected to.
I guess that most people here recall the kind of Ireland I am talking about, even those who are younger than I. I do not suppose I was different from most Deputies in having had a harmonious parental background: my parents lived harmoniously together for 40 years until they died in rapid succession. I appreciate the value of it because I can imagine the devastation it would have caused my brothers and me if the thing had gone to pieces. I believe absolutely what the bishops say about this, and they express it very well. I do not think it is any different from what most Deputies here would be able to record for themselves.
I have been speaking about a world in which these things were taken for granted, in which everybody existed in a comfortable environment. I regret the passing of that comfortable cat's cradle existence: everybody's aunts and uncles were married and stayed married; everybody's cousins were married and stayed married. Once in a blue moon — it happend in my family — some tearaway uncle might get married somewhere else and divorce the woman, or the other way around. Then his name was, shall we say, stricken from the family bible. He had visibly put something of a distance between himself and the rest of us.
That was the world ofDublin Opinion. I regret its passing to a new world in which cruelty and satirical skill and so forth are far more marketable than the kind of quiet fun which Dublin Opinion used to stand for. In Dublin Opinion's era my parents poked fun at an earlier generation whom they associated with great aunts and great uncles, the people of “Ballyscunnion”. People who used to read Dublin Opinion will remember that gentle, by no means cruel or non-respectful or contemptuous, portrayals of an even older Ireland.
That was the kind of cat's cradle we all grew up in. It is not anything in ours or anybody else's legislation that has changed that. It has changed because of a series of factors, pressures from the outside world, the communications explosion which gives people immediate electronic access to worlds of which they never dreamt —"Dallas", "Dynasty" and worlds even in our own country to which people once did not aspire even if they were some steps up the socioeconomic ladder. They might have barely aspired to them or thought their children or grandchildren might one day reach them. This has been brought on by affluence not necessarily accompanied by the thrift that should go with it or the understanding of what makes affluence.
It has been accompanied also by younger marriages. That has happened everywhere. In the UK they have had divorce jurisdiction since 1857. Even though that divorce jurisdiction was there, divorce was very rare in Britain until the era of the Second World War or after it. The Second World War was the watershed because absences in the war put strain on marriages and because of people getting married very young because they thought they might not be alive in a week. After the war divorce figures began to climb steeply. They may have declined from a peak, but it took nearly 100 years for the divorce provision to be availed of massively in Britain. It became massively availed of because conditions had changed.
As I have said, that has happened here, too. I regret the passing of the days of William Cosgrave and Eamon de Valera andDublin Opinion. I have nostalgia for that period. However, I cannot shut my eyes to what is happening around me. I do not say one should oppose a trend if one can intelligently oppose it, moderate it or steer it. One could do that, but I do not think the measure before us now does anything more than reflect something that is irreversible. As with many other matters, we have had here a timelag of 20 or 30 years before what happened to Britain has begun to hit us. There is always a timelag, near though the two islands are to each other. As I am constantly complaining in this House that we never seem to be ahead of them in legislation, we wait for 20 years and then copy what they have done. In architecture also the same timelag applies. One can be sure that an Irish Georgian house will have been built about 30 years later than a similar house in England. It is the same in moral attitudes.
I read the extract from the bishops statement published inThe Irish Times two days ago and I find it impossible to disagree with anything in it. I am far from being a particularly pious person. I suppose I have the same difficulties as many other people; but I could not find it in me to make fun of, to belittle or even to disagree with most of what the bishops said. I do not think anyone on this side of the House disagrees with what was said. I accept that divorce is a dreadful event for children. I also accept that the introduction of a divorce jurisdiction will be progressive and that, even though we may only be introducing something here that is quite restrictive, the measure will be relaxed progressively. I expect that the next generation of Deputies will find the five-year wait intolerable and that perhaps the sons and daughters of the present Divorce Action Group will be pushing them to do something about the matter.
I accept also something I have heard Deputies on this side deny, namely, that once we have a divorce jurisdiction it changes radically the concept of marriage. As the law stands today, the word "marriage" cannot be defined except by reference to indissolubility. It is nothing if it is not indissoluble. I accept that it will undergo a kind of chemical transmutation. That is undeniable and it is impossible to quarrel with what the bishops have said in this regard.
There is only one thing I have to fault bishops for. It is the reason I propose to support the amendment with my vote in the ballot box; but I do that very diffidently, hoping I am not making a serious mistake and, above all, that I am not misleading others in what I say here today. The one point missing from the bishops' statement, and this is something that has weighed very strongly and decisively with me, is what is one to say to very young people who make a mistake. I do not go along with many of the broad spectrum views on this issue. In any event, I am not fanatical about it: I have tried to explain that I feel very far short of confident about it. I am not going to join any crusade or to propagandise about it. I do not see the matter in terms of a civil right, although I have heard Deputies on this side so describe it. I do not think that anyone looking at marriage as a contract, even in the most simple and most elementary form, could say that there is a civil right to dissolve a contract. There is the right to break it and to pay damages and there is the right, if both parties agree, to modify it or to withdraw from it. However, it is overselling the case for a Government Deputy to describe divorce as a civil right, although I accept that people in bad marriages feel that their rights are being trampled on. I do not see divorce as a remedy for marriage breakdown and I agree that probably it will cause as many breakdowns as it will remedy.
Above all, I do not see that this matter has anything to do with the North of Ireland, any more than I think we should clean up the litter on our streets because of the tourists. The argument that we have to change the law here to bring ourselves into line with the North or to disarm criticism from non-Catholics or those who think this is some kind of spiritual dictatorship run by the hierarchy, is wrong. We will run our affairs to please ourselves. I absolutely share the Taoiseach's feelings with regard to the North and entirely support everything he says about it — although I may have other differences with him — but I am not so eager for integration as to throw out laws that suit us in order to bring that day forward. I will leave the North and the question of civil rights out of calculation.
I was very sorry to hear the Minister for Health, Deputy Desmond, speak here yesterday about what he called the hypocrisy of a nullity jurisdiction. What is hypocritical about nullity? If the State had got off its bottom and done something about extending the civil nullity criteria sometime in the past 20 years, we probably would not be having this debate here. Nearly 20 years ago after the all-party Committee on the Constitution had reported — including a lucidrous recommendation that divorce should be permissible if one's religion permitted it; I never heard anything more discriminatory as between citizens — I wrote a series of articles at the end of 1967 and I remember urging that we should look at the nullity law essentially because a marriage or any other kind of contract is regarded and can be declared retrospectively as null and void if the parties have not had the proper capacity for forming the contract. A contract as important as marriage — a million times more important than a contract to buy a new suit — is null if somebody has been bullied into it, if their will has been overborne by duress, if their will has been side-tracked or deceived by fraud or if their will is infected by some kind of disability, lunacy or something approaching that which makes it impossible for them to form a serious intention. I would add to that list the state of immaturity. By extending the nullity law we could have freed a huge number of young people from the consequences of an early and quickly regretted mistake.
I am putting the whole matter on modest and much more narrow ground than I have heard argued here in the past few days. The only reason I will support the amendment is because if I voted "no" I would be saying no to the chance of young people who have made a mistake to have another try. I would be saying no to giving them another chance. I regret that the excellent statement in other respects from the bishops did not deal with that matter. Perhaps from the point of view of the Church it does not seem so urgent because in the Church nullity jurisdiction immaturity, a will that can be looked on as defective because it was not informed sufficiently and maturely, will often be grounds for a decree of nullity. Perhaps the Minister did not plan to use the word "hypocritical" in regard to nullity law. In any event it is quite out of place and is off the point. If we had done something about it at that time it would have rescued a huge proportion of the wrecked marriages about which we are now taking such drastic action.
Immaturity in regard to matrimony is a relative thing. People mature at different times. I hope what I say will not be regarded as an immoral or hedonistic point of view. I think the twenties are a priceless time of life and that period should be passed in liberty by both sexes. I do not mean in libertinism and I do not want to be misunderstood. Neither do I pass judgment on people's behaviour. But I think the twenties are a priceless time of life that time whittles away and destroys. To be young, adult and free, to go round the world, to get to know other women if one is a man and other men if one is a woman and to have experience of other people before one makes a serious decision with regard to marriage and, above all, to get to know oneself, all of these things are of priceless value. At the age of 20 people often have a false picture of themselves. There is no Member here of my age, which is 54 years or even ten years younger who would not look back on a frame of mind or opinions he held when he was 20 and who would not now think how innocent and simple or even arrogant he was at that time and hope he had a bit more sense now.
Many people, particularly women, get married in their early twenties. They are taking an awful risk as well as throwing away options in life which they may later regret not having exercised. Suppose a person aged 20 or 21 falls in love and marries, the strong statistical likelihood is that they will be in love two or three further times in their life with a lot of people. What will they do then? The Church's answer is that they will have to put up with it. It is easy to say that, but the flesh is very weak. It is not just the flesh because there are dimensions in the attraction of the sexes which far transcend the carnal.
Early adulthood should be a period of liberty, gathering experience and understanding oneself. One's heart must be twisted if one refuses to help those who marry in their twenties and find that they know themselves better later on and cannot make out with their partner. The earlier in their twenties they marry the truer that is. I cannot vote against this. I have always felt strongly on this subject. I do not want to use a word which may seem offensive to others who think otherwise, but it is terribly harsh to say to people of 22 or 23 years of age and who find that they have made a mistake: "That is it. You had your chance. You must stay in this human situation which you made for yourself, immature though your judgment may have been, and little though your knowledge of yourself may have been, for the rest of your life, be it 60 or 70 years." It may be perfect heroic morality, but I cannot bring myself to believe the State should adopt that attitude.
Since the State has done nothing about nullity the only course open to me is not to vote against this proposal but to support it with the strong misgivings which I have outlined. I heard Deputies Flanagan, Glenn and Flynn in the course of their contributions yesterday predict that it would be defeated. If it is, I beg this Government or whatever other Government may be in power to do something quickly about nullity by extending the criteria for it along the lines I have suggested. This could be done within the Constitution without going to the people.
The last theme I wish to embark on is the performance of the Opposition in regard to this issue. I went into the Members' Bar yesterday evening. When I got in the door I could hear happy shouts of laughter. I thought perhaps there was an old Marx Brothers movie on television. I was not far wrong. It was Deputy Brian Lenihan explaining to the people of Ireland his party's position and explaining why his Leader was not here to make the case for himself. The laughter was as cheerfully joined in by a couple of his own colleagues in the bar as by the rest of us. I understand Deputy Haughey's position all too well. He has to keep in with everyone. I recognise the ethos of his party. It was trenchantly put by the man who was then Fianna Fáil Chief Whip, Deputy Ahern. I do not know if he realised he was being reported at a meeting for Fianna Fáil women. InThe Irish Times there is a headline: Bertie Tells FF Women Sell Your Soul. I shall read two paragraphs from the article:
The Flurry Knox of Irish politics laid it on the line. Keep your balance. Keep well in with everybody. Say hello to your local TDs and Councillors even if you hate them and you might get nominated at your local convention.
Further on he says:
You have to walk the line. Take the middle ground. You may hate your TDs but you must do what is required. We all have to swallow humble pie and I have been doing it for years. But if you keep at it —
— this unremitting diet of humble pie —
——you can break through and get selected at the convention. If you do it the other way —
—in other words speak your mind like a free citizen of a Republic —
you haven't a chance.
That is Deputy Ahern's opinion. He did not take it from the wind. It is the political ethos in which he was brought up. If getting there means selling your soul a little bit, well there is not a profession in the world where you do not have to change your principles. If you play it right and keep your balance you can get to the convention. What an ambition — to submerge and extinguish every feeling and every instinct of truth and straightness if necessary. For what? To save your soul? No, to get through the convention. That is the priority in the party he belongs to. I understand his Leader accepts that priority. He has to keep in with all kinds of people if he is to sit on this side of the House again. He has to keep in with the Ballyscullion vote on the one hand and the Lower Leeson Street vote on the other which, by all accounts, is strongly represented in his party. It is not easy to do that on this issue.