Paul Hopkins: Court rule gives credence to what family means
The recent Supreme Court ruling in favour of a man who was denied access to the widower's pension because he was not married to his long-term partner described his three-year battle to be given the State entitlement as a "fight for equality".
In a landmark appeal judgment, the court ruled that John O'Meara, from Co Tipperary, was entitled to the benefit and unanimously granted an order quashing the 2021 decision to deny him the pension. Mr O'Meara (with three teenage children) had launched an appeal against the refusal by the Social Protection Minister to grant the pension following the death of Michelle Batey, Mr O'Meara's partner of 20 years and the children's mother, who died in January 2021 after contracting Covid-19 when recovering from breast cancer.
The ruling saw justice done, but also gave further credence to what today in Ireland constitutes 'family' in its many guises.
Pope Francis during his visit here in 2019 made great emphasis on ‘world families’. He also came down hard the other week calling for a global ban on surrogacy, calling the practice "deplorable" and a grave violation of the dignity of the woman and the child. But just before Christmas he gave the go-ahead for same sex couples to have a church blessing.
Both my parents, in their 80s when they died in 2000, were one of eight siblings each. In the early 1980s when I wed I was told that the ‘new’ family consisted of mum and dad and 2.4 children – oh, and a dog and a goldfish. When my second child arrived, I was perplexed, panicked even, over what exactly a 0.4 child might consist of. To allay my concerns, we went the whole nine yards and brought our third child in to our lives.
Forty years on, here’s some salient facts to consider: nowadays, children have fewer siblings, fathers are more involved and grandparents are more important than ever. These were among the findings in a study of the modern Irish family published by academics at Trinity College and Maynooth University. The study points to an increasing diversity of family ‘types’, many of which have emerged as families come to grips with economic and social change.
Families have become "smaller, more diverse, with more involved fathers and a greater reliance on grandparent support". The study also points to ongoing divisions in educational attainment and opportunity based on class and on single versus two-parent families.
While the traditional nuclear family continues to prevail, there are numerous other types, including single-parent families, migrant families, mixed-nationality families, gay and lesbian families, couples with no children, living-together-apart couples and families split by emigration and long-distance commuting.
Economics, as well as greater equality between men and women, underlie the changes, say the academics.
An earlier study from researchers at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and UCD found that one in three families departs from the traditional model of a married couple both of whom are in their first marriage. One in four children under 21 years of age lives in a family that does not conform to this model. Alternative family structures are dominated by never-married cohabiting couples and lone mothers (both never married and divorced or separated). Together with first-time marriages, these family types account for 92 per cent of families in Ireland.
That said, many people view family as a matter of biology. They see biological parents, siblings, and grandparents as the purest form of family, but that definition is limiting. Foster families and adopted children who have no biological relationship are still family — they are welcomed as an extension to a family tree. Single parents are also no less valid because one parent is absent.
Meanwhile, something (still) as common as marriage – although many millennialists are leaving marriage, if at all, until later in life – also undermines the definition of a biological family since there isn’t a biological link between two spouses. Stepfamilies and blended families also are more common and fall under this category. A family may then be defined as a legal union of individuals. A definition supported by the recent Supreme Court ruling.
The beautiful thing about defining family as a collective of individuals who love each other is that it fully embraces the changing dynamics of family, not only in the community, but also in individual families.
Let's see how March 8th referenda pans out...