Referendum on divorce moves a step closer for Irish voters


DUBLIN, Ireland -- The Irish government has decided to press for ending Ireland's constitutional ban on divorce in a national referendum later this year, officials have announced.

If the government campaign succeeds, it will mean that overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Ireland, the only European Union country that prohibits divorce, would permit it. Removing the ban would also make it possible for the thousands of Irish who have obtained foreign divorces to remarry in this country.

Officials and proponents of allowing divorce, while careful not to predict victory in the referendum, which is tentatively scheduled for the end of November, said that several serious obstacles to their campaign had been overcome in recent days.

Last week, the Cabinet of Prime Minister John Bruton reportedly agreed that the referendum question would state that divorce would be possible after a couple had lived apart for at least four years.

A week ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the Irish constitution, which explicitly forbids divorce, does not preclude granting legal separations after a one-year waiting period.

In 1986, voters rejected a divorce measure by a 2-to-1 margin after it was strongly opposed by the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Ireland. In that campaign, the church and other opponents argued that divorce would bring injustices in property rights and pensions. But the church stopped short of saying that voting to permit divorce would be a sin, stating that a vote was a matter of individual conscience. This time, the church has made no immediate comment on the government's plans or the court's decision.

Government officials have not disclosed specifics of the wording of the referendum because they do not want to give opponents the entire summer to attack it. Groups opposing divorce say they are already planning a vigorous campaign.

Article 41 of the 1937 constitution says: "The state pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of marriage, on which the family is founded, and to protect it against attack. No law shall be enacted providing for the dissolution of marriage."

It bars people who have obtained divorces in other countries from remarrying in Ireland. And the marriages of Irish citizens who go abroad to remarry are not recognized legally.

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