THE REFERENDUM in the Irish Republic on Nov. 24, to amend the constitution to provide for legal divorce and remarriage, may mark a significant step from a Catholic to a nonsectarian state. The momentum for passage comes from changes that have already occurred within Irish society.
A similar attempt nine years ago backfired. But now some 75,000 marriages are believed to have broken down, a legal framework for property rights in separation has been legislated and the Catholic Church, which claims some 95 percent of the people as adherents and opposes the change, has been undermined by a few spectacular scandals involving priests.
The amendment under consideration is for a limited change. The parliament, which is now forbidden to enact divorce and remarriage, henceforth would allow remarriage when a couple has been separated four of the previous five years. The change might have been designed more broadly as a show of good faith toward the people of Northern Ireland. This was not done.
Since the Irish Republic's 1937 constitution purports to apply to Northern Ireland, this document will pretend that the new provision is the only divorce legitimate in Northern Ireland as well as the Irish Republic. This is a fantasy no one in Ireland believes.
Currently a major Anglo-Irish effort is under way to persuade the recalcitrant Ulster Unionists to negotiate with all parties on a new and fair provincial regime within the United Kingdom, and a link to the Irish Republic. There is no chance of success until the
territorial claim is amended out of the Republic's constitution.
The Dublin government of Prime Minister John Bruton understands that, but is not confident of winning passage. So it holds it out as a concession to be traded-off in future negotiations. Meanwhile, the people of the Irish Republic are being asked to grant a limited right of divorce and remarriage for themselves. And they are being asked to pretend that it will extend to Northern Ireland. That helps explain why the majority of the people of Northern Ireland still want the British army to protect them from the pretense of this constitution.