The majority of the Maltese people have voted for the formal introduction of divorce. Their verdict must, of course, be respected.

The gap between those who voted yes and those who oppose the introduction of divorce – 53.2 per cent against 46.8 per cent – was wider than may have been expected and there may be various reasons why this happened. What is certain is that the outcome opens a new page in the history of Maltese society and its approach to tackling the ever-growing problem of failed marriages.

The chairman of the pro-divorce movement, Deborah Schembri, described the result as an expression of solidarity towards married couples encountering problems.

For Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, neither those for nor those against held divorce up as a desired ideal but as a remedy for those experiencing marriage break-up.

Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat, however, insisted it was not a matter of winners or losers but of a nation that respected civil liberties and tolerance. All must work for stronger families, he said.

In a note on Saturday night, when voting had stopped, the Bishops described the exercise as the starting line of a big effort and investment by both the Church and the country in favour of marriage and the family.

The people have done their duty. They have spoken and expressed themselves clearly. Now the focus shifts to Parliament and its members who have the duty and grave responsibility of translating the people’s mandate into legislation that encapsulates the main elements listed in the referendum question but also attain that about which there is national consensus: strengthening marriage and the family.

The Bill now before Parliament probably needs to be fine-tuned to take into account points raised throughout the campaign. Robust studies analysing the real situation on the ground and making solid recommendations should also be commissioned without any loss of time. Indeed, these should have ideally been part of the referendum campaign but better late than never.

In short, the new reality calls for a serious and honest national soul searching if society is to adopt the promotion of marriage and the family as an indispensable national good. To this end, the state must involve itself more than it did to date in the proper preparation of couples for marriage, in encouraging the stability of marriage and in providing all possible modern and efficient means to help couples whose marriage finds itself in troubled waters, so they would not need to resort to divorce which the political parties have now been given a mandate to introduce.

Such a new national effort should ensure the effective contribution and participation of all stakeholders, from Parliament to the government and other institutions too, first and foremost among them the Church.

But the biggest burden now rests with MPs. It will not be easy for those of them whose conscience does not accept divorce. In the circumstances, they need to make their position crystal clear at the very start of the parliamentary debate, which must take its course without, however, any dragging of feet.

The attention is now on the parties represented in Parliament. Both leaders say the will of the people has to be respected, meaning divorce legislation must be introduced. They have also declared all MPs are free to vote according to their own conscience. What has happened so far in Parliament does not seem to show that this is truly the case.

It is time for MPs to stand up and be counted, literally.