It’s now or never | Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando

Pro-divorce campaigner and founder of the Iva Movement Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando believes that if the No movement prevails in the 28 May referendum, Malta will not see divorce introduced in the foreseeable future

Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando thinks that there will be no other chance in the foreseeable future to introduce divorce if next week’s referendum is lost.

“If the referendum on such a conservative bill – which limits divorce to those who have been separated from each other for more than four years – is lost, the issue will be put on the backburner by both parties and it will be difficult to imagine seeing divorce introduced in the foreseeable future.”

Together with fellow Iva campaigner Evarist Bartolo, Pullicino Orlando has already made it clear that he will respect the people’s mandate and withdraw the bill if divorce is rejected by the referendum.

Whether divorce is approved or not, Pullicino Orlando will still remain a Nationalist MP in a government which enjoys a slim one-seat majority.  The question on everyone’s mouth is whether the close identification of the Nationalist Party with the No camp, following a highly charged campaign, could herald a divorce between Pullicino Orlando and his party.

But Pullicino Orlando is categorical in his “commitment to constituents who elected him on behalf of the Nationalist Party to serve the full five years.”

He promises his “full loyalty to the constituency and to continue his legislative work in parliament.”

But while expressing his respect for those within his party who expressed opinions against divorce, he was “surprised” by declarations made by some of his colleagues.

“I have to admit that having actively worked in the party at all levels since I was 15 years old, I was surprised… for someone who joined the party on the basis of its ‘work, justice, liberty’ slogan it was shocking to hear some of my colleagues using the ‘religio et patria’ slogan, which belongs to a completely different historical context. ”

He also expresses concern that some colleagues whom he respects mix affairs of state with religion.

“The church has a very important role in society and should be given the space to continue its sterling work but one should not confuse religion with politics.”

But he acknowledges that this unhealthy mixture of religion and politics is not a prerogative of the present crew of politicians.

One thing which was recently put under the spotlight was the 1995 Church State agreement, which gave precedence to the ecclesiastical court over the civil court when it comes to cases of annulment.

“I now appreciate more the total confusion between the role of state and church when this agreement was signed.”

Pullicino Orlando still cannot fathom why his party has taken a stance against divorce.

“What strikes me most is that the party has declared itself to be against the introduction of divorce at the present moment. It has not ruled out its introduction in the future.”

Reaffirming his very strong stance against abortion – which characterised a number of his interventions in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, of which he was an active member for a number of years – he makes a comparison between the way the party tackles the two issues. 

“This is not a case like abortion, which the party opposes in principle and would and should never accept. Why should the party take a stance against something which it does not exclude introducing in the future?  How can one turn divorce into a principle if its introduction according to the party depends on the circumstances?”

How does he reply to the accusation that he proposed a divorce bill to undermine Lawrence Gonzi’s government?

“I used to hear the same thing even when I spoke against the engineered landfill, for instance, or the St John’s Cathedral underground museum project… Some people do not understand that MPs are not there to say ‘yes sir’ and rubberstamp all decisions. This is not the role of an MP, otherwise we should simply elect a Prime Minister and a Leader of the Opposition and let them do whatever they like.”

But he still praises the internal discussion on divorce carried within the Nationalist Party Executive Committee in which he “was given more space than some MPs opposed to divorce.”

The most positive aspect of the campaign according to Pullicino Orlando was that he campaigned alongside Labour exponents like Evarist Bartolo and AD chairman Michael Briguglio, as well as former Nationalist Minister Michael Falzon in an unprecedented alliance in Maltese political history.

“This was a historical development and I hope that this spirit will continue even after the campaign on certain issues because the absolute majority of the Maltese are fed up with the three parties being constantly at loggerheads.”

For this reason he describes his experience in this campaign as “the best one” since he started campaigning in 1992 when he contested for the Zebbug council election.

“On Monday 30 May, Evarist Bartolo and myself will find ourselves on opposite sides again in Parliament and I am sure that there will be many things which will divide us. But for the whole campaign, we were able to work together for a common cause… rising above partisan rivalries was a most uplifting experience.”

Apart from the political parties, one key player of the campaign was the Catholic Church. Before the campaign even started the Archbishop made it clear that he does not want any crusades. Has he kept his promise?

“I won’t express any judgement on anyone… but I never expected that some priests would speak in the way they did while addressing parishioners. These things are reminiscent of things which happened in the past. I never expected these things to happen again.”

One of the major objections raised lately by the No campaign is that if divorce is introduced and alimony guaranteed – as promised in the question – those who barely have enough money to raise one family will end up neglecting their first family for a second one.

“The truth is that we already have a number of people entering a new relationship. I do not think people are so irresponsible that they enter a new relationship without having the means to take care of the new partner and children. What is actually happening now is that some people are forming new relationships which are never declared, have children and then shift the burden on the rest of society.”

What is certain is that “most people whose first marriage fails do not live celibate lives.”

This fact is recognised by Prime Minister who is against divorce but accepts the need to regularise cohabitation.

“Presently there are two choices for those whose marriage fails, celibacy which is not a practical option for many and cohabitation. We are proposing the third alternative; re-marriage. When a marriage has died completely after four years of separation, we want to give people the chance to form a new bond of marriage. If we sincerely believe that marriage is the best alternative, which strengthens society, one would prefer responsible divorce to cohabitation.”

Pullicino Orlando agrees with the regularisation of cohabitation for those who still prefer this option but he lashes at the double standards of those who accept cohabitation but not divorce.

“I cannot understand how those who constantly refer to morality seem to prefer the present state of things in which thousands are forced to cohabit to having all these people married. That is why our billboard said “pogguti bil-fors”, it might shock for not being politically correct, but this is reality.”

The billboard also referred to children born out of wedlock as “bghula” (bastards). Does not the use of this harsh word reinforce the prejudice against these children?

Pullicino Orlando explains that the whole point was to expose reality, that apart from discrimination in inheritance rights, children of unmarried couples still face social stigma.

“This is saying things as the are. Unfortunately, children tend to be very cruel to each other and they do use these words to insult each other. They tend to pick up on weaknesses. And unfortunately, being born outside wedlock is still perceived negatively in Malta. So why deny parents of these children the chance of re-marrying if they want to? Why force them to cohabit when they don’t want to?”

The principle objection to divorce by the anti-divorce camp was that it devalues the marriage vow, turning marriage into a four-year contract or a “zwieg rabta coff” (a marriage without ties) according to the Prime Minister.

Pullicino dismisses the very idea that there is anyone in his right state of mind who will obtain a divorce four years after marrying capriciously, dismissing the notion that people will be willing to pass from the trauma of a marital breakdown for petty reasons.

“I cannot fathom the logic of those who think that there are people who get married only to immediately separate, live four years apart simply to get a divorce… what the hell would these people marry for in the first place – just to end up having to enter arrangements on alimony?”

Secondly, Pullicino Orlando dismisses the notion that dead marriages have any value worth protecting.

“We are talking about people who have lived apart from each other for five, ten years and who sometimes do not even talk to each other… people who have already made arrangements on alimony after legally separating each other and after all efforts at reconciliation have failed.  What is the whole point of calling these relationships marriages?”

At the end of the day, according to the divorce bill proponent, what the no camp wants is to keep Malta different from the rest of the world by not allowing these people to re-marry.

“It is true that we are different from the rest of the world because we do not have divorce. But we are not different from the rest of the world when it comes to marital breakdown. It would be great to live in a country where no marriages break down. But facts show that our rates of marital breakdown are even higher than those of countries with a similar culture –  it is even higher than Ireland and Italy, which have similar divorce laws as that we are proposing.”

Neither does Pullicino Orlando see any reason to congratulate Malta for being so unique.

“I am astonished by those who constantly look towards Europe but on this particular issue look towards the Philippines which is on the other side of the globe.”

“The whole message of our campaign has been to say the truth… we have not buried our heads in the sand by ignoring this reality. The truth is that children going through separations pass from a trauma, and that there are people who are forced to cohabit. We are not proposing a solution to couples whose marriage is dead. We are not saying that divorce is a magic wand; we are simply offering these people a second chance to happiness rather than let them suffer simply, for instance, because of a lack of proper judgement when they were young. Should we condemn them forever because of this?”

Divorce also rewards the choice of people who want to stabilise their status by choosing marriage over cohabitation.

“Those opting for re-marriage rather than cohabitation are showing a tremendous sense of responsibility and commitment. Why should we tell these people no?”

The Iva campaign has focused on battered wives as a category that could find a second chance through divorce. Le rebutted that through divorce, the violent husband would also find another opportunity to beat a new wife, thus hitting out at the proposed “no fault divorce.”

For Pullicino Orlando, this argument was “the most heartless” one used so far in the campaign.

“You have to be really heartless to argue in a way which would condemn these women twice. They are telling the same woman who suffered at the hands of her husband to allow the same husband to continue determining her life. Simply to keep this husband from divorcing they want to keep these women from seeking another chance to happiness. The only option she has left is to cohabit.”

Moreover, even in the absence of divorce, nothing stops her husband from cohabiting with a new woman in an unregulated relationship.

Pullicino Orlando refers to the notorious YouTube clip which shows a woman being beaten up by her boyfriend.

“Simply because she did not press charges, the violent boyfriend was sentenced a minimal fine with the magistrate, declaring that he would have imposed a higher penalty if the couple were married. This case clearly shows that marriage offers greater protection to women in the same situation.”

It also turned out that both the aggressor and the victim had been previously separated, thus exposing the fallacy that the absence of divorce will prevent violent husbands from abusing other women.

He also turns the tables on the No movement, arguing that the current situation exposes the second victim of violent husbands to greater risk. 

And quoting statistics by church research body Discern showing that by 2015 Malta will have 35,000 people who have experienced separation, he also challenges the contention that divorce goes against the “common good.”

“How can we protect the common good when a large chunk of the population are denied from basic rights available in all European countries?”

One major injustice highlighted by the Yes campaign is that Malta already recognises divorces from other countries, a loophole which allows some Maltese to get divorced abroad if they change their residency.

Last week, Pullicino Orlando said that if No wins, he would proceed to apply for divorce from the United Kingdom. Did this not give the impression that he is simply pushing his own agenda for purely personal reasons, and that the referendum campaign is all about him?

Pullicino Orlando rubbishes this argument, insisting that if this were the case he would have simply got a divorce from abroad without seeking to extend this right to those who are unable to do so.

“If someone thinks that simply because of my personal position I would have made myself and the country go through all this, they really don’t know what they’re saying.”

Pullicino Orlando insists that he was raising the case as an example to expose the prevailing injustice. “What I meant was that in my position and circumstances, I can apply for a divorce abroad. Others cannot do the same because they are in a different position and circumstances.Is this fair?”

According to Pullicino Orlando, the situation in Malta is even less fair than that in the Philippines.

“Divorce obtained from a number of other countries has been recognised in Malta since 1975. This makes our situation even less fair than that in the Philippines, where they are honest enough not to recognise divorce for anyone.”

“This is a crucial point for me during the whole referendum – to make what is already available for the few, for all. This is the biggest injustice there is. How can one accept divorce only for those who have the means or whose circumstances enable them to get it from abroad?”

Abdi D
@ mikegold117 Anything is better than the present administration, what with a finance minister who is having hallucinations - seeing Our Lady Crying because of Divorce, that's between jet setting to watch British football matches.
JPO should do something when his party that has always called itself liberal has suddenly become confessional. It actually isn't the same party he worked in before he started becoming persona non grata.
@Humantorch ghaliex tal-pl differenti.
@human torch: never trust a nationalist.
Jeffrey, with all due respect this is the same government you form part of. They showed you what type of principles they truly endorse. I truly cannot understand why you are still on the side of this outdated political class when all they want is to destroy you. If you really want to help your constitnuents as you rightly said then you should pressure so that we will have a new government which respects their dignity and daily efforts to bring up thier families...since the one you form part of is politcally dead.
It is a pity that the divorce issue has been taken up by this man.
It is a pity that the divorce issue has been taken up by this man.