The Irish government has announced that it will hold a referendum on easing the country's restrictions on divorce.

At present, the Irish constitution only permits divorce when spouses have lived apart for four of the previous five years.

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Those restrictions were inserted into the Irish constitution in place of a blanket ban on divorce which was removed in a 1995 referendum by a 50.3 to 49.7 percent majority.

Voters will be asked in May whether to reduce this separation time, known as the "pause period,” to two out of the three previous years for partners seeking a divorce.

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Vote "No" to divorce campaign poster from 1995. Ireland voted to end the ban on divorce by a 50.3 to 49.7 percent majority.

Vote "No" to divorce campaign poster from 1995. Ireland voted to end the ban on divorce by a 50.3 to 49.7 percent majority.

Such people currently apply for an out-of-court legal or judicial separation when the marriage breaks down and then have to return to the courts again for a divorce once they have proved they have lived apart for four of the previous five years.

One benefit of a reduction in the period an estranged couple lives apart would be an end to duplication of legal costs and stress.

"Ireland has one of the lowest divorce rates in Europe and that is to be welcomed. Sadly, however, some marriages do break down irreconcilably, causing immense sadness and stress for all concerned,” said Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan.

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"The Government wishes to ensure that the process for obtaining a divorce is fair, dignified and humane and allows both parties to move forward with their lives within a reasonable timeframe.

A Vote "No" to divorce campaign poster from 1995.

A Vote "No" to divorce campaign poster from 1995.

Minister Flanagan added that the constitutional protections around the granting of a divorce would remain in force.

"If the referendum is passed, the current provisions containing the requirements that there be no prospect of reconciliation and that proper provision exists or will be made for spouses and children will continue in the Constitution.

"It will also remain the case that only a court can grant a divorce."

If the change is approved by voters, the new rules for divorce could come into effect towards the end of the year.

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The Irish government has announced that it will hold a referendum on easing the country's restrictions on divorce.Getty Images