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From the Archives – Referendum Watch: How Laois-Offaly voted in the 1986 Divorce Referendum

Divorse Referendum 1986

This piece was originally published on LaoisToday in the lead up the referendum that year on the 8th Amendment. 

In less than a month, the country will go to the polls for another referendum as we’re asked to vote on the hugely emotive issue of the 8th Amendment.

Yes campaigners are seeking to give women the right to choose – freely, safely and legally in Ireland – if they want to have an abortion or not.

This is challenged by pro-life campaigners who seek to protect the rights of an unborn child.

But ahead of that we have decided to look back at previous referendums that have asked the people of Ireland to decide on family-related matters – previous abortion votes, divorce and marriage equality – and how the Laois-Offaly constituency voted in each case.

This week we’re looking back at the 1986 Divorce Referendum, called during the Garret Fitzgerald-led Fine Gael-Labour Government.

At the time an absolute ban on divorce had been present in the constitution since its adoption in 1937. The prohibition reflected the religious values of the document’s Roman Catholic drafters, but was also supported by senior members of the Anglican Church of Ireland.

In the 1930s some other nations had similar bans, such as Italy, which would not repeal its ban until the 1970s. By the 1980s, however, many saw the prohibition on divorce as illiberal or as discriminating against those who did not share the Christian attitude to divorce.

In 1986, a first attempt to remove the ban on divorce was made by the Fine Gael–Labour Party coalition government of Garret FitzGerald. The proposal was put to a referendum on 26 June 1986 but was rejected. The proposal was opposed by Fianna Fáil (the main opposition party), by the Catholic Church and by conservative groups. The Tenth Amendment, 1986 was rejected by 935,843 (63.5%) against to 538,279 (36.5%) in favour.

In Laois-Offaly, it was an even more overwhelming No with a massive 73.4% of the vote on the No side. The Laois-Offaly No vote was the ninth highest in the country – with Cork North West leading the way at 79%.

Dun Laoghaire was the highest-voting Yes constituency with 58.8% as Dublin constituencies made up eight of the first nine places in the regard.

Local constituencies to Laois also voted against the referendum – with Carlow-Kilkenny at 68.1%, Kildare at 55% and Tipperary North at 74.5%.

The massive defeat of the referendum led for calls for the Taoiseach’s resignation.

“The knives are out,” screamed the front-page headline on the Irish Independent the day after the vote. “Taoiseach faces party wrath after big divorce defeat,” read the subheadline.

The Irish Independent after the 1986 Divorce Referendum

Laois Fine Gael TD Oliver J Flanagan was one of the backbenchers on the anti side of the party while Fianna Fail leader at the time Charles Haughey said the government was “totally out of touch with public opinion”.

“The majority have spoken loudly and clearly,” said Deputy Flanagan in the Leinster Express after the referendum.

“There is still hope for Ireland. One would want to be a raving political lunatic to think Ireland would vote for divorce.

“The people of Ireland have behaved magnificently at the polls – and have clearly rejected the Godless decision of the government to introduce a divorce legislation in the Republic.”

An anti-divorce poster in 1986

The Leinster Express reporter painted the picture of the voting centre in Portlaoise by saying “there were more reporters present than members of the public and the inevitability of the outcome was clear from early morning”.

“The previous day members of Family Solidarity and anti-divorce activisists had been busy at the polling stations erecting posters and also ferrying voters to and from the stations. There was virtually no evidence of any pro-divorce campaign or campaigners.

“Active and prominent Fine Gael members were admitting privately that they had been cornered by the Referendum. Expressing dismay at the extent of the defeat, they simply could not understand where Dr FitzGerald had got his advice on this matter and as one said, ‘it wasn’t from the grassroots anyway’.

“The Referendum also came in for a fleeting reference at Monday’s meeting of Laois County Council. While the Council had been discussing the shortfall in finance, Cllr Mary Wheatley asked where did the Government get the money for the divorce referendum. ‘I hope there’s no more of them on the way,’ she said.”

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Steven Miller is owner and managing editor of LaoisToday.ie. Husband of Emily, father of William, Lillian and John, he's happiest when he's telling stories