Check Against Delivery

Commencement Matter: Senator Jim Walsh
The need for the Minister for Justice and Equality to make a statement outlining the specific initiatives that this Government plans to implement to promote and support the married family with the object, inter alia, of addressing child poverty, of reducing marriage separations and divorce in the interest of the well-being of children and their mental health; and, in particular, to comment in this regard on the relevance of Penn State University New Research on “The Effect of Parental Divorce on the Health of Adult Children” as well as a report entitled “Has the Association between Parental Divorce and Young Adults Psychological Problems Changed over Time? Evidence from Sweden 1968-2000’ By Michael Gahler (Stockholm University) and Anne Garrigan (University Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona).

Opening remarks by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald TD

27 January 2016

I am delighted to have the opportunity today to outline the Government’s policy on support for the marital family and on provision for divorce and separation in the context of family breakdown.

There are substantial legal protections and recognitions for the family based on marriage, at both constitutional and statutory level. These are recognised not only in our family law code itself, but also in our tax codes and in a variety of state benefits provided to spouses.

The State recognises the value of a stable and loving marital family and the immense benefits that it brings to society as a whole, particularly to the children of the family.

However, it is a sad fact that serious marital differences do arise and cannot always be addressed other than by separation or ultimately divorce. The Irish people decided in 1996 that there should be constitutional provision for divorce in situations of irretrievable marital breakdown. However, 20 years later our divorce and judicial separation rates remain low by international standards. Annual rates of divorce and separation also appear to be relatively stable. The data would not suggest a significant upsurge in demand for divorce.

The State undertakes a series of initiatives to support couples experiencing marital difficulties. It continues to fund both marriage counselling services to assist couples in rebuilding their relationships, and mediation services which may assist in resolving disputes. Where the relationship has broken down, and the parties see separation or divorce as their only viable options, mediation can also assist them in reaching agreements on the terms of the separation or divorce, helping also to reduce parental conflict.

Ultimately, if the couple proceed to separation or divorce, it is vital to maintain a strong emphasis on the best interests of any children. The Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, key elements of which I commenced on 18 January 2016, provides a new statutory framework to consider the best interests of the child, and to allow the views of the child to be taken into account, whether directly or through a report by a child’s views expert.

It is clear that post-divorce, many families will suffer some reduction in income. The State provides several supports which help to mitigate these effects for the most vulnerable, including rent allowance, one-parent family payment, family income supplement or back-to-work family dividend.

The reports to which the Senator refers are interesting, but it is difficult to transpose their findings very directly to the Irish context. There is limited research available in Ireland as to the impact of divorce on children. An ESRI paper, dating from Spring 2014, has analysed on the first wave of data from the “Growing up in Ireland” study. It finds while there is a benefit for children from being raised by married parents, that benefit may stem from factors other than the parents’ marital status. As the authors state, there are “important implications for policies which promote marriage as the key to child development as it appears that much of the benefits of marriage are not related to marriage per se but to the socio-economic background of mothers.”

The Government has undertaken a series of reforms of family law to respond to the situations of families across a range of situations, reflecting its commitment to supporting families. However, the Senator must recognise that marital breakdown and divorce are realities of modern Irish life and that the right to divorce, subject to a court being satisfied as to certain specified matters, is now enshrined in our Constitution. The key issue is to ensure that any negative impacts on the children of such families are mitigated. The Government’s recent reforms are aimed at ensuring that children’s interests remain central even in a context of serious changes to their family life.