The 1995 Divorce Referendum: A Geographical Retrospect

Adrian Kavanagh, 14th May 2015

With the upcoming presidential candidates age and marriage equality referendum contests to take place on 22nd May (2015), I thought it would be useful to look back at geographical patterns in turnout levels and Yes/No trends in an earlier referendum that might be of some relevance here, namely the 1995 Divorce Referendum.

A good constituency breakdown of voting patterns at this contest can be viewed on the website or indeed in the official publication by the Department of Environment and Local Government.

The referendum on dissolution of marriage took place on Friday 24th November 1995. Out of a total electorate of 2,638,234, 1,633,942 votes were cast, amounting to a percentage turnout level of 62.15%. While lower than the turnout levels associated with general election contests (as in keeping with the second-order election model), this turnout level was quite high when contrasted with turnout levels at other referendum contests, but particularly those contests that did not take place on the same day as a general election (as in 1992). In fact, this contest had the highest turnout level for any referendum contest (once the November 1992 contests were excluded) held in the state since the referendum on EEC membership in 1972.

A series of earlier opinion polls had pointed to a comfortable win for the Yes side in this contest. A series of Irish Times-MRBI polls had estimated that the Yes vote was at 62.7% (17th February), 71.8% (20th-22nd May), 71.5% (26th-27th July) and 67.0% (29th-30th September). However, the size of the margin between the Yes and No votes narrowed quite considerably in the final weeks of the campaign, with the Yes vote falling in the final opinion polls down to levels of 59.7% (3rd-4th November), 51.7% (18th November) and 51.6% at the exit poll on the 24th November. The actual share of the vote commanded by the Yes side was even lower at the election, amounting to 50.28% of the valid vote. The margin of victory was just 9,114 votes, meaning that the referendum would have been lost if just over four and a half thousand of the Yes voters had changed their minds, or if 0.92% of the 994,892 non-voters had decided to turn out and vote No. The weather on the day was believed to have had a bearing on the result, with bad weather in the West, where the No vote was strongest, and better weather in the East, where Yes support was highest.

Turnout levels varied quite notably across the state on election day. Turnout in Dublin (64.72%) was slightly higher than the national average, with turnout levels in Leinster (62.12%) and Munster (63.23%) coming in around the national average. However, turnout levels in Connaught-Ulster (56.73%) came in notably lower than then national average. The highest turnout levels tended to be associated with the more middle class urban constituencies, with Dublin South (69.99%) recording the highest turnout level of any constituency. There were also high turnout levels in Dublin North-Central (69.04%), Cork South-Central (68.02%) and Dun Laoghaire (67.60%). With the Dublin region, however, Dublin Central (57.34%) recorded a low turnout level.

Turnouts were lower in rural Ireland, contrasting with the trend of higher rural voter turnout levels that is normally evident at general and local election contests. The lowest turnout levels at this contest, as has been often the case at other recent referendum elections, were recorded in the two Donegal constituencies of Donegal South-West (51.07%) and Donegal North-East (51.93%). The next lowest turnout levels – although these were four or five percent higher than those in the Donegal constituencies – were found in the two Mayo constituencies of Mayo West (55.32%) and Mayo East (56.26%).

The geographical variations in voting trends were even starker when it came to looking at support for/opposition to the referendum proposal, with a very significant urban-rural divide emerging. The Yes side comfortably won the day in all of the Dublin constituencies, with 63.56% of Dublin voters, on average, supporting the proposal. The margin of victory for the Yes side was even larger in some of the Dublin constituencies, including Dun Laoghaire (68.21% Yes, or 36.42% margin of victory),  Dun South-West (66.84% Yes, or 33.68% margin of victory), Dublin North (65.34% Yes, or 30.68% margin of victory) and Dublin West (65.33% Yes, or 30.66% margin of victory). But, outside of Dublin the Yes side only won out in five other constituencies – three of which were located in the Greater Dublin region (Kildare, Louth and Wicklow) and two of which were located in the other cities (Cork South-Central, Limerick East).

Support for the referendum proposal in the more rural constituencies – excluding Dublin and the other cities – amounted to, on average, 43.46% of the valid vote. Support for the proposal was somewhat stronger in the Leinster counties (averaging at 48.87% of the valid vote) but was lower in Munster (43.88%) and especially lower in Connaught-Ulster (40.34%). The lowest vote share for the Yes side at this election at the constituency level was associated with Cork North-West (33.94%), with other low votes shares being associated with Galway East (34.99%), Longford-Roscommon (35.26%), Limerick West (36.90%), Cavan-Monaghan (37.43%) and Kerry South (38.27%), as well as Donegal North-East (40.60%) and Donegal South-West (40.89%). Turnout levels in some of these constituencies were, admittedly, similar to the national average, or even higher than it in some cases, but some of these constituencies also had very low turnout levels at this contest.

Limerick East (0.09% winning margin for the Yes side) and Waterford (0.50% winning margin for the No side) were the constituencies that most resembled the national trend. On this basis, if the geographical support patterns were to largely remain the same, Limerick City and Waterford could well be viewed as the bellwether constituencies at the marriage equality referendum.

On average, turnout levels were almost four percent higher in the constituencies that supported the referendum proposal (64.37%) than it was in the constituencies that voted against this (60.48%).


About Adrian Kavanagh

Lecturer at the Maynooth University Department of Geography. Email:
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1 Response to The 1995 Divorce Referendum: A Geographical Retrospect

  1. Pingback: Geographical perspective on the May 2015 Referendum contests | Irish Elections: Geography, Facts and Analyses

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