Deputy Ruairí Quinn was in possession and I understand it was his intention to share time with Deputy Joanna Tuffy. Deputy Tuffy has 11 minutes.
Civil Partnership Bill 2009: Second Stage (Resumed).
I and the Labour Party welcome this Bill. It represents progress on the rights of same sex couples and unmarried couples. There has been progress on this issue over the last number of years. That progress has been incremental, as progress should be, rather than happening all at once. The Bill is not perfect but it is progress on which we can build for the future, just as we built on legislation that was passed regarding same sex couples and unmarried couples in the 1990s.
I will speak later about some of the people who have played a part in the progress on this issue. The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN, has welcomed the legislation and Dr. Fergus Ryan, who prepared a paper for GLEN on the legislation, commented that the Bill represents a robust and comprehensive step in the right direction and that both practically and symbolically these measures will, if implemented, represent real and substantial progress in the recognition and protection of non-traditional families.
The paper prepared by Dr. Fergus Ryan, who is head of the law department in the Dublin Institute of Technology, is a substantial study of the legal provisions in the Bill. I read it last night. It is a very comprehensive analysis of the Bill and I hope some of the comments made on it will be taken on board by the Minister, the Minister of State and the Department. Some important points are made regarding silences in the Bill and improvements which could be made to it, some of which I hope could take place on Committee Stage and Report Stage and as it progresses through the Seanad. Dr. Ryan also says that the Bill represents the most far-reaching reform of family law in a generation and affects 130 pieces of legislation, many of which are very complex and historic, such as the Succession Act and various pieces of family law legislation which give rise to decisions regarding the family home and so on.
A number of points needs to made on what issues need to be addressed as the Bill progresses through the House or in separate pieces of legislation. We should not lose sight of the fact that this is called the Civil Partnership Bill, but it also deals with the rights of cohabitees. There is not a lot of awareness of that fact. Many people who are cohabitees, because of the way the Bill has been publicised, are not aware that it also affects them. The Government needs to have a campaign of public awareness because when it comes to cohabitees the rights are applied to them without their having to register their relationship. It is important that cohabitees are made aware of the provisions in this Bill.
I am very thankful for Dr. Fergus Ryan's paper because it is a very informative analysis. He makes the point that the effect of this Bill is more significant in terms of the rights and obligations conferred on cohabitees because of the number of families involved. He refers to the 2006 census which estimated that there are more than 120,000 cohabiting couples in the State, some one third of whom have dependent children residing with them. There are 120,000 couples but there are also some 40,000 children who will be affected by this Bill. There is speculation that after the Bill is passed changes will then be made to the legislation on tax and social welfare.
I am interested to know if those changes will also apply to cohabitees because, in terms of how they are currently treated by the law, they are in a catch-22 situation. The social welfare legislation applies to them and treats them as if they are a unit. At the same time the tax legislation, from which they could benefit, does not. Very often cohabitees are negatively impacted upon by social welfare legislation. For example, one member of the couple cannot qualify for jobseeker's allowance because he or she is means tested on the basis of the income of his or her partner, but the couple does not receive the tax advantages of a married couple. I hope the tax benefits married couples receive would also apply to civil partners and cohabitees. The Minister of State might let us know what Government's plans are in that regard.
Dr. Fergus Ryan makes the point that the Bill is largely silent on the children of the couples affected by the Bill. There is a need to do something about unmarried fathers and their rights. We are well behind other countries in that regard. We are making progress, but one area in which we are not making progress is the issue of unmarried fathers. If there are 40,000 children and 120,000 couples, and all the other couples who do not live together, some of whom are in same-sex relationships, something needs to be done about the rights of unmarried fathers. They need to be given automatic guardianship or something similar to the arrangements in Scotland and other countries in Britain where, if one's name is on the birth certificate, one automatically gets guardianship rights. At the very least, we should introduce such a measure here.
Dr. Ryan's paper for GLEN refers to omissions or silences in the Bill. He speculates on whether the Bill will apply in the same way as it does to married couples, but the Bill is silent so there is no clarity in that regard. Those issues need to be explored on Committee Stage and Report Stage because if important areas are left silent, they could become loopholes and people could not be protected in areas in which they need to be.
He also makes some points regarding children, namely, that the relationship between the children of a civil partner and the other civil partner is one which is not generally acknowledged for the purposes of the Bill. He discusses how, despite that, the Bill will contain protections for children, such as the section which asks the courts to have regard to the rights of any other person. He says this may include the child of either civil partner. I take the position GLEN, many others and public opinion would take, that is, we need to make sure our laws protect children. If we do not deal with that in this Bill, we will have to deal with it ultimately, the sooner the better. I hope the Minister will accept amendments to the Bill which will improve the rights of the children of civil partners and cohabitees.
If that is not done, when the Bill is passed we will have to grapple with the issue because if we do not there will be problems down the line. We have to reflect the reality of same-sex partners and cohabitees who have children and recognise it is a large part of the picture on the ground in terms of family formation. It always has been, but it is so now more than ever. Public opinion is well ahead of the Government in that regard.
I wish to refer briefly to those who have contributed to this Bill. Groups such as GLEN and individuals have campaigned for this over the years. People have taken brave decisions, including the former Minister, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, in 1993. I remember being here for that debate. It was a significant step at the time and yet, when we look back now, the opinions then were out of date compared to now. It was a very brave move on the part of all those who supported it at the time. It was a very important and significant step which has, in effect, paved the way for this Bill.
I was in the Seanad in 2004 when Senator David Norris had a Bill on this issue. He has played a huge role, as a Senator and an individual, in campaigning for the rights of homosexuals and same-sex partners, something on which he needs to be commended. The Seanad has produced fine Senators, has been very progressive and has been an important part of our Legislature. Other individuals were also involved. This Bill is another step and we will need to make further progress when it, it is to be hoped, is passed very soon.
I wish to share time with Deputy Beverley Flynn.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak to the Bill. From what I have picked up from the contributions of previous speakers, it is receiving a relatively approving passage in the House. Nevertheless, as with the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993, this is landmark legislation. I was a Member of the House when the then Minister, Ms Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, introduced the Bill decriminalising homosexuality in 1993. She took a major step at that time but did so with calmness and a clear sense of direction. I recall that the debate on the Bill was also relatively tempered and was conducted with moderation. I was glad that was the case.
When the Civil Partnership Bill was first mooted I, like many Deputies, was approached by constituents to discuss the issue. I have no doubt the individuals in question were well meaning and did not have ulterior motives. They expressed fear and foreboding about whether, for example, a registrar would refuse to perform his or her civil duties when a same-sex couple gave notice that they proposed to be registered. They asked what would happen if the registrar decided he or she would not preside over a civil partnership ceremony. We also heard about the possibility of photographers refusing requests to photograph same-sex couples and bakers refusing to bake cakes for same-sex registrations. In that case, one could do without the cake. These were facile arguments which had no bearing on the issue for which we proposed to legislate. My response, therefore, was that I did not anticipate any difficulties. As the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, stated at the time, one leaves one's religion outside this Chamber. That was a fair comment.
Shortly after Christmas, someone asked me whether I was aware that break-ups were much more common among same-sex couples. I responded that I was not aware that was the case but all types of families break, regardless of the nature of the sexual relationship. People enter relationships with high hopes and with their hearts full of love, commitment and fidelity. They hope to preserve these attributes but regrettably fidelity does not always last. If a relationship does not work out or there is infidelity in it, the couple will break up. To imply, however, that same-sex relationships are more likely to break up than male-female relationships is, in my view, to engage in the spreading of unfounded rumour.
In introducing the Bill, the Minister stated:
This Bill takes nothing from anyone but what it gives is profound and is positive.
It creates for the first time in Irish law a scheme under which a same sex couple can formally declare their allegiance to each other, register their partnership under new provisions in the Civil Registration Act 2004, commit themselves to a range of duties and responsibilities and at the same time be subject under new law to a series of protections in the course of their partnership in the event of a failure of either party to maintain the other and in the event of disputes between them as to ownership of property.
This is practical legislation and I commend the Minister on the alacrity with which he set about bringing it before the House.
In 2007, the Fianna Fáil Party election manifesto made a clear commitment to introduce legislation on same-sex relationships. This commitment was renewed in the programme for Government agreed with the Green Party and is now being implemented in legislation.
As a republican party, Fianna Fáil is committed to equality, which is a fundamental tenet of republicanism. It is noteworthy that, in addition to this Bill and the 1993 Act, Fianna Fáil Ministers introduced the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989, Employment Equality Act 1998 and Equal Status Act 2004. Those who, in their wilder moments, seek to label Fianna Fáil Party members as backwoods men and women should reflect on the fact that Fianna Fáil Ministers have shown a determination to wipe out, in as far as possible, inequality in society. I do not make this point for political purposes. It is amazing, however, that people seek to attribute a characteristic to my party which is not borne out by the actions of its members.
I cannot see how anyone could object to enabling love, commitment and fidelity to flower in a relationship, as this Bill will do. It will also provide certainty that various duties and responsibilities attach to such relationships and if a relationship does not work, due deference will be paid to the party who has been damaged. In a world fraught with difficulties and which is daily witness to hatred in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan and even in the talks under way nearer home, surely we should support simple legislation giving certainty to couples of the same sex who wish to express their devotion and fidelity and give shape to their relationship. This Bill will allow such couples to gain a sense that they truly belong to one another, as has been evidently the case in their relationships heretofore.
I applaud the motives and determination behind this simple yet complex legislation. Amendments will be made to many Acts to take account of the changing nature of relationships, particularly by changing the terminology used in much legislation. I hope there will be scope for making amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage. I am sure the Minister will see fit to ponder proposed amendments tabled and accept those which he deems suitable.
I am pleased this fine Bill is being introduced and hope it will put an end to the inequality experienced by same-sex couples as they go forward into their future together.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill, which reflects the new reality in this country. Figures for 2006 show that 120,000 or 12% of couples are cohabiting and that, combined, they have 74,500 children. Statistics show that 1.71% of those couples are same-sex couples but I believe the actual number is higher because that census did not pose the appropriate question to produce the correct figure. I am certain it is more than the 2,000 plus reflected in the statistics.
This is the new reality in Ireland today. Many of these couples are living together without any financial certainty or any provisions in respect of succession or property rights. It is extremely important that the Minister has brought the Bill before the House at this time in order to provide certainty for couples in the future. I welcome that so much public debate has taken place on this issue. There was the Law Reform Commission report, the considerations of the all-party Joint Committee on the Constitution and submissions from various interested groups including the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN. In addition, public opinion on the issue was sought through market research.
Some sections of our society have raised concerns but I believe those concerns are unfounded. Marriage has constitutional protection in Ireland today. It is the only legal intimate relationship recognised under our law and is legally binding and dissolvable only in a court of law. However, just because marriage is the only relationship with legal standing in the Constitution, this does not preclude our offering that protection to other cohabiting couples, whether of the same or opposite sex, or to people who wish to enter into a civil partnership.
I welcome this Bill and what it is trying to achieve. I welcome the fact that a new legal status will be provided for same-sex couples that will be legally recognised by the State and dissolvable only by a court or by death. I welcome this and other provisions in the Bill. There are some shortcomings but the Bill is an enormous step in the right direction and that has been recognised as evidenced in the public reaction to its publication. It has been recognised by many people and interested parties as a giant step in the right direction for many couples, which I welcome.
I also welcome the provisions in respect of cohabitants. This applies to same-sex persons and cohabitants of opposite sexes, excluding siblings and people in a non-intimate relationship that does not come under the definition provided within the Bill. This provides great security to many cohabiting couples in regard to the regulation of their financial affairs and in the provision of a redress scheme. This is very important. However, although the civil partnership and the registration of such a partnership applies only to same sex couples there are many cohabiting couples in the State. The Minister's view is that a cohabiting couple who are of opposite sex have the option of availing of marriage, with all the security and legal rights it provides. Many cohabiting couples in the State are trapped, however, and are not in a position to be able to avail of marriage because of the nature of our divorce legislation. Persons must be living apart for four of the previous five years; the resulting delay in obtaining a divorce means there are many couples in cohabiting relationships. Those couples are without any financial security and do not have the option to marry because of legal constraints. The sections of the Bill that deal with cohabitants and provision for the economic security of a dependent cohabitant are very welcome and I am delighted to see them.
Part 2 of the Bill provides for the recognition of foreign relationships which is important for people who have entered into legally binding contracts in other jurisdictions. Where these are similar to a civil partnership they will be recognised in this country as that. The registration formalities covered under Part 3 of the Bill are very similar to the registration process one must go through when one marries in this country, namely, the provision of three months' notice, the requirement to be over 18 years of age and the requirement for the marriage to take place in the office of a registrar or in an approved venue. I welcome all of that.
However, more important is Part 10 of the Bill which confers legal consequences as a result of registration. In particular it confers the protection of legislation on domestic violence, in addition to civil liability and pensions. This is a very large issue, particularly for many couples at this time when many pension schemes make provision for a spouse but do not allow such provision to be made for a civil partner. This is a massive step forward and is of huge concern. Many civil partners to whom I have spoken in recent times desperately need this type of security. I am delighted to see it covered in the Bill. It is important.
Although I recognise the Bill does not deal with social welfare or tax issues, which will be dealt with in future social welfare and tax legislation, it is important that it clarifies the issue of pensions and provides the provision that civil partners must be provided for in the future.
Part 8 of the Bill deals with succession and provides that the surviving civil partner will have the same succession rights under the Succession Act of 1965 as are provided for a surviving spouse. That is very welcome.
Part 11 of the Bill deals with nullity, which, again, is similar to the situation that pertains when a marriage is nullified in the courts. It effectively means that the civil partnership did not exist and that both parties are free to marry or enter into another civil partnership. The provisions under Part 12 with regard to protection and maintenance are of critical importance.
There has been reference to the issue of children and this is something that concerns me. When a marriage breaks up there is specific mention of children and how they will be dealt with. Even in regard to the situation of cohabitants to whom financial provision is made, section 171 of the Bill makes specific reference to children. However, in the case of civil partnerships it is almost as if the entire issue of children has been avoided at all costs. This seems to be the precise case within the legislation and I am concerned about it. We have a responsibility to protect every child in this country and to see that economic support and provision is made for them. Although there is an indirect reference to this in the Bill, it is my view that the legislation does not go far enough. It is something we must look at in the future. This is not in any way to take from the Bill, which is a huge leap forward. Clearly, however, there is a feeling on the part of the Minister that children must be looked after and provided for because this indirect reference is included. It could be safeguarded and made more specific. The reality is that many same-sex couples have children and are responsible for them and we cannot avoid this reality. We must deal with it appropriately and I ask the Minister to consider this issue again. It is certain that we must give it consideration it in the future.
It is important that under this Bill civil partners will get protection similar to that provided to spouses under the Family Home Protection Act and that a non-owning civil partner may prevent the sale of a house if he or she does not consent to the sale. This is a very important measure and again is something that will provide a great deal of security to many couples. In addition, a civil partner can apply to the courts for maintenance and that on the dissolution of a civil partnership there can be maintenance orders, lump sum payments, pension payments and division of properties as is the case in divorce. Just as in a divorce case, when a dissolution takes place a person will be precluded from making further claims against a former civil partner especially if he or she goes on to enter into another marriage or relationship.
The measures in the Bill are a huge leap forward. The idea that we are giving legal status to civil partnerships is hugely welcome. The measures have been broadly welcomed in this House and it is clear from the market research available that public opinion is very much on the side of dealing with the new reality in Ireland today. That is in no way to minimise the constitutional protection afforded to marriage or the equality of individuals in the State which is upheld within the Constitution. We are not trying to weaken those provisions in any way by giving legal status to civil partnerships. There are differences between that legal relationship and the protection given under marriage and the benefits and rights also conferred by marriage in this country.
I do not believe this is an area in which people should feel threatened in any way and it is important that we recognise people have rights in society. Whether couples are same-sex or cohabitants, they also have responsibilities, concerns and financial considerations that must be addressed. It is important that we be open-minded enough to be able to deal with all of these issues in society and that at least we be fair and confer equality to people across the board. From that point of view, I welcome this legislation wholeheartedly.
I welcome comments made in the course of the debate and welcome the thinking of the Minister concerning the issue of parental rights and dealing with the matter of children. Whether they are brought into a marriage, a civil partnership or to a cohabiting couple, children are innocents who need to be protected. It is vital that this fact be recognised and that the position of children be of paramount importance. I would be interested in hearing the Minister's views on that particular aspect.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill. Deputy Flynn articulated the position of the great majority of people in respect of this issue and indicated that they want the Bill to be enacted in order that all citizens — irrespective of their sexual orientation or whether theirs is a traditional or non-traditional family — will have the same rights. It is for this that the legislation must provide.
It is amazing that the Bill has been in gestation for the past nine years. The first joint seminar in respect of this matter — hosted by the Law Reform Commission and the Gay and Lesbian Network, GLEN — took place in 2000. After much toing and froing in the interim, we have reached the point where a Bill dealing with this issue has been placed before the Oireachtas.
The State's ultimate responsibility is to support people as they are and not to cast value judgments on their relationships. Society must be informed that it is in the interests of the State to have people in loving and protective long-term relationships, irrespective of the nature of such relationships. The State has an absolute interest in ensuring that provision be made for those who wish to live in loving, long-term relationships. It must be in everyone's interests for people to live together, to share things, provide for each other in times of illness and in times of good health, protect each other and provide for their retirement. These are natural instincts among all members of society. The State has a vested interest in ensuring that laws should be put in place to facilitate that which I have outlined.
I am currently reading Andrew Marr's book on the history of modern Britain which covers the period from Clement Attlee's election as Prime Minister following the Second World War to the end of Tony Blair's term in office. There is a wonderful section in the book which describes the purge that took place against the gay community in Britain in the 1950s. Much of the discrimination perpetrated against the members of that community in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain was reflected in the hostile and prejudicial reaction to lesbian and gay citizens in this State.
In the 1980s and 1990s, I had many gay and lesbian friends who did not have the confidence to come out or to speak about the nature of their sexuality. We have come a long way in ten or 15 years. I would not underestimate the degree to which this legislation, when it is placed on the Statute Book, will greatly assist people in believing that they are citizens of this country, that they have a stake in it and that their notion of citizenship is fostered and respected in the same way as that of others.
As my party's spokesperson on education, I am aware of the great difficulties young people, particularly those at post-primary level, have in coming to terms with their sexuality. I know the kind of bullying to which they are subjected at school and the fact that the spectre of suicide haunts some of them. However, I also know the sense of discovery they harbour. We should not underestimate the degree to which the Bill will state that people's place in society and their rights are respected. The latter will be a by-product of this legislation's passage into law.
I wish to place on record my thanks to a former Fine Gael Senator, Ms Sheila Terry, who published my party's first position paper on partnership legislation in 2004. In the lead up to the most recent general election, my party, in its manifesto, indicated that it would — whether in government or in opposition — support the introduction of partnership legislation during the lifetime of the 30th Dáil. We, therefore, clearly outlined to the electorate our support for legislation of this nature during the period from the publication of former Senator Terry's position paper to our 2007 election manifesto.
It is important that there be cross-party support in respect of this matter and that it should not be turned into a party-political squabble. There must be broad-based support — such support exists among citizens in general — among politicians for the provisions of the Bill.
When one considers the transformation of Irish society over a short period, one can see the necessity for legislation of this nature. In 1996 there were some 34,000 cohabiting couples in the State. The census of 2006 indicated that in ten years the number of such couples had radically increased to over 121,000. Cohabiting couples had 23,000 children in 1996, whereas today some 75,000 children are members of what have loosely been described as non-traditional families. The position with regard to same-sex couples is similar. In 1996 only 150 couples described themselves as being same-sex couples, whereas in 2006 there were over 2,000 such couples. Like Deputy Flynn, I suspect that the number of such couples living together in long-term relationships is well in excess of that figure.
Many myths relating to the nature of the legislation have been circulating in the public domain. In short, the Bill is an attempt to regulate the position of new families which require protection in law. People want to protect both themselves and their partners in a way that provides some certainty. As already indicated, it makes eminent sense that the State should encourage them to do so. People should be encouraged to ensure their affairs are in order and protection should be afforded to them.
I am aware of the outrageous situation whereby members of gay and lesbian couples are not recognised within the hospital system as being their partners' next of kin. These individuals are not recognised as being involved in a long-term, loving relationship with another person. That is an absolute scandal. Another appalling example in this regard relates to someone involved in a long-term relationship whose partner is dying and who is left with no protection either in the context of pension provision or in a legal sense.
This matter is not merely about the extension of rights to those couples, it also relates to the extension of responsibilities. In the context of the law, we are stating that it is important that the relationships of people in the group to which I refer be recognised and we are outlining the rights that accompany that recognition. Equally, however, we are also outlining the responsibilities which accompany it. The position is the same as that which applies in respect of those who are involved in traditional marriages.
One of the myths that has been circulated is that the Bill will downgrade the position of marriage. I wish to refute that assertion because I do not believe marriage will be downgraded at all. The clear protection afforded to marriage under Article 40 of the Constitution is absolute. That protection can be changed only on foot of a referendum and it cannot be altered by an Act of Parliament. That was made abundantly clear in the remarks of Ms Justice Dunne in the High Court in the case taken by Dr. Zappone and Dr. Gilligan, in which they attempted to have recognised a marriage of their union in Canada in Irish domestic law. It is worth putting on the record what Ms Justice Dunne said in that case, which, I understand, is still under appeal in the Supreme Court. She said:
I think one has to bear in mind all of the provisions of Article 41 and Article 42 in considering the definition of marriage. Read together, I find it very difficult to see how the definition of marriage could, having regard to the ordinary and natural meaning of the words used, relate to a same sex couple. . .
The definition of marriage to date has always been understood as being opposite sex marriage. How then can it be argued that in the light of prevailing ideas and concepts that definition be changed to encompass same sex marriage?
Having regard to the clear understanding of the meaning of marriage as set out in the numerous authorities opened to the Court from this jurisdiction and elsewhere, I do not see how marriage can be redefined by the Court to encompass same sex marriage . . .
Marriage was understood under the 1937 Constitution to be confined to persons of the opposite sex.
In no way will the passage of this Bill downgrade or undermine marriage because absolute and clear protection is given in Articles 40 and 41 to marriage as an act between persons of opposite sex. I am not saying that in the future that could not change. However, the only way it could change is if there is a referendum. It is the people who will decide whether that definition of marriage as expressed in Bunreacht na hÉireann can change. I reject the notion that in some way the Bill downgrades marriage because absolute and fundamental constitutional protection is given to marriage in Articles 40 and 41.
The other myth that has been put about is that there should be a freedom of conscience clause. In other words, if I am so appalled by the notion of a gay or lesbian couple having their relationship recognised under civil partnership legislation, I should have the right to opt out of the provisions of the Bill on the basis that this in some way runs counter to my view of the world. If we accept that principle, we would be accepting some kind of sharia law. We would be accepting that religious views of the world would dominate over the laws of the Republic. We cannot have that. Given that a registrar will be given rights under this legislation to perform a ceremony, if it is the choice of the couple concerned, the primary law cannot give a right to a registrar to opt out of that because he or she is an officer of the State. The notion that under freedom of conscience an officer of the State could effectively be allowed to discriminate against a gay or lesbian couple because of his or her religious beliefs is fundamentally opposed to the existing constitutional provision that applies.
It is worth considering the Employment Equality Act 1998. As Members will know, that Act effectively gave the right of opt-out to denominational schools when it came to certain practices. It certainly gave the right to positively discriminate. I refer to this Act to advance my argument that it is spurious to claim that people have a right to opt out of the legislation if they so choose. I argue that they do not. I wish to put on the record the views of the Supreme Court on the Employment Equality Act 1998, which makes the provisions therein absolutely clear. Section 37 of the Act states:
A religious, educational or medical institution which is under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes or whose objectives include the provision of services in an environment which promotes certain religious values shall not be taken to discriminate against a person for the purposes of this Part or Part II if—
(a) it gives more favourable treatment, on the religion ground, to an employee or a prospective employee over that person where it is reasonable to do so in order to maintain the religious ethos of the institution, or
(b) it takes action which is reasonably necessary to prevent an employee or a prospective employee from undermining the religious ethos of the institution.
I know the teaching unions have a very fundamental view about that section, which I understand. However, it provides that a religious, educational or medical institution can effectively take into consideration things which would ensure that the religious ethos of the institution be upheld and also can prevent employees from undermining the religious ethos of the institution. Under Article 26 of the Constitution, then President Mary Robinson referred the section to the Supreme Court for consideration. The Supreme Court gave a very significant ruling in agreeing that it was constitutional but it put parameters on the constitutionality of section 37. The then Chief Justice stated:
No serious criticism can however be advanced against s. 37, sub-s. 2 which entitles an institution to prefer a particular candidate on the grounds of his or her religion if in fact being of that religion is an occupational qualification for the post in question. The attack has been directed more against sub-s. 1 which entitles an institution to give more favourable treatment, on the religion ground, to an employee or a prospective employee "where it is reasonable to do so in order to maintain the religious ethos of the institution" or to take action "which is reasonably necessary to prevent an employee or a prospective employee from undermining the religious ethos of the institution.
The Supreme Court found that "it was constitutionally permissible to make distinctions or discriminations on grounds of religious profession belief or status insofar as this may be necessary to give life and reality to the guarantee of the free profession and practice of religion contained in the Constitution". The Supreme Court found that religious groups and denominations are recognised and nothing can be advanced in law that prevents people coming together, professing their faith or ensuring that that faith is upheld.
The ruling of the Supreme Court on this issue has a direct relationship to the question of a freedom of conscience cause related directly to the idea of the institution of the religious group itself. It did not allow the State to positively discriminate one way or the other. It simply stated that the religious groups have fundamental rights and nothing should be advanced to undermine their rights as religious groups in the context of the institution. It does not give a right to registrars to opt out. If this Bill comes before the Supreme Court, which it may, I believe the court will rule forcefully again that officers of the State cannot allow themselves to opt in or opt out of the legislation. I believe the Supreme Court ruling clearly directs that registrars, as officers of the State, must enforce this.
In a traditional marriage, of course, the priest, rector or whoever performs a dual function — the civil marriage and the religious marriage. Under the civil partnership legislation this would not be possible because it recognises the role of the religious in terms of the marriage. I do not believe there is justification for the argument some groups have made that we can allow a freedom of conscience clause in this legislation. I do not believe it holds up to scrutiny. It is abhorrent to the Supreme Court ruling relating to the Employment Equality Act. It should be emphasised that the narrower part of section 37 was looked at in the context of the President referring the Act to the Supreme Court for its consideration.
To those seeking a freedom of conscience clause in this legislation, I do not believe that, constitutionally, it holds water, and neither do I believe it would be supported were the matter to come before the Supreme Court again. I ask people, in the spirit in which the legislation has come about, to recognise that this a good day for the country and for those who are looking for recognition of their rights to be upheld by the State, and for people to give this a fair wind when the Bill is ultimately passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas.
Before Deputy English starts, I intend to invite the Minister to conclude at 1.20 p.m. if there are no other speakers after Deputy Burton in the Chamber.
I believe my colleague, Deputy Clune, wanted to speak.
If Deputies are not in the Chamber, I shall be obliged to do this.
I shall only take a few minutes, in any event.
I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words on this very important Bill, which is a step in the right direction. The Bill means progress for same-sex and cohabiting couples in their relationships. Its purpose is to establish a statutory civil partnership registration scheme for same-sex partnerships together with a range of rights, entitlements and protections consequent on registration, and to set out the manner in which such partnerships may be dissolved.
The Bill also establishes a redress scheme for opposite-sex and same-sex couples who are not married or registered as in a civil partnership, as the case may be. It also provides for the recognition of cohabitant agreements which regulate the shared financial affairs of couples and enables them to opt out of the application to them of the redress scheme. However, it does not deal with the whole issue affecting non-conjugal couples. This was addressed by Fine Gael in its discussion document. Deputies will be familiar with cases involving brothers and sisters who have lived together all their life and might share assets. However, the law does not really protect them, or at least needs to be further amended in this regard.
We accept that this area may not be appropriate for this Bill, but it needs to be addressed expeditiously. There is no reason that it cannot be dealt with, and I am glad the Minister of State with responsibility for housing is in the House because it is very often in his area that such problems will arise. We should be able, in our discussions on this Bill, to make a commitment regarding a timeframe for having this matter addressed. Some of the Government's reports in the area of civil partnership actually refer to it, yet we are being told sufficient research has not been carried out to justify legislation in this area. I cannot accept this, but if it is true, a motion should be tabled to the effect that the research will be done within the next six months, when it will then be possible to legislate. We tend to complicate matters in the Oireachtas over too long a period of time, even in the case of this Bill. That is a problem with the procedures of the House, especially when the Government is unwilling to recognise the work done by Opposition parties.
Fine Gael published policy documents in this area, the Labour Party published Bills on it and Bills were introduced in the Seanad by Senator Norris over many years. However, almost 20 years after Denmark legislated for this, Ireland is taking the initiative. We are far too slow and this is unnecessary. There is general public agreement, even among those who oppose the concept of this legislation, that something has to be done. Such people will still argue against parts of the proposed legislation and it might go against their beliefs, but they understand that it has to be done. Nonetheless, it still takes years for such matters to be legislated for. For many, the Bill does not go far enough, but I believe it is, at least, a step in the right direction and will help many same-sex and opposite-sex couples who do not opt to marry. This will be a useful Bill and will help in relation to many matters, such as recognising relationships as well as providing for the problems that may occur when they fall apart.
It is a very good Bill and there were some very good debates on it. There was a great discussion recently in the AV room, to which Deputies were invited, where family law experts gave us a breakdown of the legislation and warned about the complications that would arise in the absence of such a Bill. That was very interesting and informative and reminded us, as Deputies, that sometimes laws can cause great difficulties for people for the wrong reasons. That is why clarity is crucial in respect of legislation such as this which sets out people's rights and entitlements.
Apart from same-sex couples, a very important part of the Bill is that it recognises cohabiting couples. It is now quite common for couples to live together before marriage, or they might decide not to get married. That is their prerogative. As a Catholic, I believe in marriage and have no problem in saying that, but many people do not want to go down this road. Cardinal Brady also understands that not everyone wants to choose this course. For whatever reason people do not want to get married, we have a duty to recognise and respect this, and to cater for it in law. We must respect this situation as best we can, especially in regard to assets, the rights of children and so on. I will come back to the issue of children which is not dealt with in as much detail as it should be.
However, the Bill is right. The figures from the 2006 census showed that there were 121,000 cohabiting couples. There are many more now, in addition to the 2,000 people in same-sex relationships. That was quite a sizeable number, and I believe it is now considerably larger. It is only right that we deal with the situation.
From personal experience, I know of an unmarried couple who shared assets. Matters got very complicated when one of them died in an untimely manner. The situation became very awkward and caused great difficulty and hardship for both families. Certainly, such situations can give rise to massive delays, so proper recognition of rights in such circumstances, by agreement, is important and I believe the Bill achieves this end.
When the law comes into force, some couples might not know that their relationships are formally recognised, so there is a duty on the State to inform people about the legislation. We seem to assume in the House that when a law is passed, everyone knows about it. A couple might be living together and not discover for three years or more that the relationship could have new rights under this legislation. While it is right that the Bill should be passed, the public also has a right to be made aware of it. It is the duty of the Oireachtas to ensure that such developments are publicised. That example holds true also for young people growing up regarding their knowledge of the age of consent to sex and so on. Not everyone knows that, and young people of 15 or 16 may have no knowledge of the law in this regard. It is the last thing on their mind, so education is necessary across the board.
Most political parties have recognised the need for such legislation and brought forward policy positions in this regard, in varying degrees. Some of gone further than others. My colleague, Deputy Brian Hayes, said we needed to have cross-party support on this Bill. It is generally the case, I believe, that there is consensus at least regarding this Bill. Some parties want more, but at least we can have agreement on the legislation before the House, put it on the Statute Book and move on. It is interesting to note that when the Green Party was in opposition, it demanded a great deal more, yet when in Government it is prepared to settle for what it can get.
I do not want to sidetrack the debate, but I have a problem in general with this approach by the Green Party. People become disillusioned with politics and the various parties over the years, when, for example, they may have believed that the Green Party was different because it was not an old established entity like the others, trammelled with history and so on, but when it went into Government, it became the same as the other parties. It lost that freshness and people have been let down and disappointed. That causes a problem for the rest of us because people tend to assume that Fine Gael, as soon as it gets into Government will do the same as the Greens. I have a problem with that. Political parties in opposition need to hold their views and beliefs when they get into power, not change them overnight, because that gives a bad image of politics in general and damages us all. This Bill is yet another of example of where the Greens have virtually done a full U-turn on what they stand for and that is a pity.
There has been a good deal of debate on the freedom of conscience amendment and I understand the difficulties. To insert a freedom of conscience amendment sets a serious precedent for the future, but I believe the issue could be disposed of with a degree of common sense. I ask the Minister of State to see whether a suitable wording could be agreed to get us over this obstacle. I can understand the position of somebody who might have very strong Catholic beliefs and who has a problem with this but, nonetheless, the onus is on public servants to carry out the laws of the State. That is the way is has to be and I do not think it can be amended, although perhaps the punishment can be. I have tried to check this matter, but I believe there is talk that if one does not carry out a duty one could face a prison sentence. Perhaps one could lose or be removed from one's job, but is a prison sentence a bit too strong? Am I reading that wrongly? Perhaps there is some other way of dealing with it. We need to address that difficulty as best we can with some common sense. We want to have a Bill that most people can agree with so that we can make progress in this area. It has to be done because we do not want to get stuck on some small matter.
Deputy O'Rourke referred earlier to photographers and cake providers having a problem with this, but that is their own business. They have a choice and people do not have to employ them if they do not wish to do so. The situation concerning parish halls, however, does need to be clarified. In this context, I presume that a parish hall belongs exclusively to the Catholic Church and in that case I do not think they should be forced to make that hall available to somebody with whom they disagree. If it is a community hall, however, that is a separate matter. If a parish hall belongs to the Catholic Church which does not agree with same-sex marriages, should the law force it to allow the building to be used for such a ceremony? I personally do not think it should. I am not convinced that this Bill actually says it should be, but that matter needs to be addressed. If it is any other community or State-funded building, it is open to everybody and that is the way it should be. I would like that matter to be clarified, however, so it will not drag on and cause a problem.
I note the comments by Deputies Alan Shatter and Charles Flanagan that the Bill fails children. I have a serious problem with that because all parties have a duty to protect children whenever possible, regardless of their circumstances. If there is any way this Bill can be thus amended, then it should be done. Deputy Shatter said the legislation is blind to children and I am concerned about that aspect.
The Bill does not recognise that when a relationship between co-habitees breaks up, provision may have to be made for children just as if it is a marriage break-up. Deputy Shatter is right in that respect because it is the same situation. We need to examine the Bill from the viewpoint of protecting children. Another question raised was that if one partner in a same-sex couple has a child from a previous relationship, what will happen as regards the responsibilities towards that child? If the same-sex couple are recognised in a civil partnership, what are their duties to the child who might also be part of that relationship? That needs to be discussed and set out because it is a serious area. If the law is unclear, the child may suffer because it will not obtain its rightful entitlements or because it will have to go through cumbersome legal procedures. We must protect the child involved as best we can.
The situation concerning couples who are not in a formal relationship, but are living together, needs to be addressed. In modern society, it is generally an elderly couple who end up in this situation. They may not have access to the necessary legal information or perhaps cannot afford to go to court. If one of them passes away, the remaining partner may find it complicated to obtain justice due to costs because the matter was not dealt with properly and clearly in legislation. A recent discussion on this legislation threw up many awkward legal situations that may take a long time to resolve. While we do have laws, we do not always have justice because the system is not geared for modern times. It is slow, outdated and costly. I realise that this Bill is a step in the right direction, but we must work on making the law more affordable to everyone regardless of income. We will be told that there is free legal aid, but it is not the same. Let us call a spade a spade. They do their best with minimal resources, but one does not get the same service as if one could afford to pay a top barrister. We must address that because the law should apply in the same way across the board regardless of a person's financial situation. People do not receive the same treatment under the law, however, and it is far too slow. It should not take years to get justice, along with all the horror and suffering involved, especially in family law cases.
I want to deal with some other aspects of the Bill before us. There is a four-year delay before divorce proceedings can be initiated, but under the provisions of this Bill the period is two years. I wonder what the logic is behind that provision. Is there some reason that was done? Does the Minister believe the chance of a break-up is more likely in such cases? It does not seem right, so I would like to have the matter clarified, although perhaps there is a good reason for it.
Fine Gael will be tabling amendments to the Bill. We have all had a lot of contact from those for and against the Bill. It is important legislation so hopefully it will be dealt with speedily and will not be delayed on Committee Stage. Ireland is way behind the rest of Europe in dealing with legislation on same-sex partnerships. We must fast-track it and grow up as a country. I know it is difficult for all of us, but we have to do what is right by the people. The law must respect their choices and rights. It is not a question of people's religious beliefs, but of their legal entitlements.
I am glad to speak on this Bill, which has been promised for a long time. It would appear to have widespread support among Deputies. As a young Deputy in the early 1990s, I recall the former Minister, Mrs. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, introducing legislation to decriminalise homosexuality. I was the only Government backbencher to speak in support of that measure at the time. Some people thought for a while that I might have had two heads, but it was wonderful that we had a woman Minister who was prepared to do the right thing despite the opposition that existed then. Over the past 20 years, Ireland has changed in many respects and we have become a much more mature country. There is certainly not the same resistance to this type of legislation now as there was 20 years ago. The Bill before us is long overdue, but I am glad it is being debated today. I acknowledge the contribution and continuous focus that the Labour Party, and Deputy Brendan Howlin in particular, gave to this matter. We discussed this issue on a number of occasions when he presented Private Members' Bills, which ensured that the Government did not rest on its laurels. We fulfilled the promises given, although it did not come about as quickly as most would have wished. It was a difficult Bill to draft, however, as a number of legal issues had to be addressed. I am still unhappy with certain aspects of it, so amendments will have to be tabled at a later stage.
I acknowledge the role played by the Labour Party in this respect, and that of Deputy Howlin in particular. It is with pleasure that I wish to comment on the Bill. In many respects, while the legislation itself is important and necessary, the Government is acknowledging a reality that exists in this country. Many same-sex couples throughout the country live in real, meaningful and loving relationships, but for far too long we have turned our backs on these people and have found it easier to ignore them. By doing that, we have denied them their rights and rightful entitlements. This Bill is about rectifying that and giving them what they deserve. The Bill will provide protection and security to same-sex couples. It will provide entitlements many of us take for granted but which have been denied to these people for most of their lives. In bringing forward this legislation, we are making a clear statement to the country and to those in same-sex relationships that the State values their relationships and realises what these relationships mean to them. It realises this is an issue that must be dealt with professionally and given a place on our Statute Book.
The publication of the Bill appears to have widespread support not just in the Oireachtas, but outside it. However, there are those, and most of us have received correspondence from them, who are totally opposed to the introduction of this legislation and who see it as a bad move for the country. They are entitled to their opinions and that is what democracy is all about. I strongly support what we are doing, but it is a pity it has taken as long as it has to get to this stage. I warmly welcome it.
Many gay and lesbian people have endured unnecessary hardship as a result of living here. They have suffered hardship on a daily basis in trying to live a normal life. This is something many people outside the gay community do not understand. Discrimination has been a common experience for gay and lesbian people. Many of them were alienated, jeered and bullied and had, in many cases, to suffer in silence. For many of them coming out created enormous pressures, particularly with regard to how their families and work colleagues would react. Unless one has had a family member or friend who has gone through that experience, it is difficult to appreciate or understand the enormity of this challenge for gay and lesbian people. The delay by the Government in providing the necessary legislation for gay and lesbian couples has allowed that type of discrimination, hardship and abuse to continue.
We all need to love and to be loved. This legislation acknowledges that people in same-sex relationships can have a loving, fulfilling and rewarding relationship and it is important we recognise that. The publication of the Bill is welcome. However, I have a serious concern with regard to an aspect of it which has been mentioned by some of my colleagues, namely, where children are part of those relationships. In many same-sex relationships, one of the members is the parent of child living with the partners. The legislation makes no clear provision for such children in the case of the death of the parent, despite the fact the remaining living partner has acted as a parent to the child for a number of years. Once that parent dies, it is as if the relationship of the remaining partner with the child must end. This is something we should not tolerate. It is important we deal with that issue now. It would be ironic that if in bringing in the Civil Partnership Bill to deal with discrimination against same-sex couples, we created further discrimination against children.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward the legislation, which will have widespread support in the House. However, we must be seriously concerned about the issue of the children in these relationships and I hope this can be dealt with on Committee Stage.
I wish to recall for the House that Deputy Seán Power was one of those who supported a Bill for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, as it was then described, which was introduced to the Dáil by the then Minister for Justice, Mrs. Máire Geoghegan Quinn, as part of an agreement for Government between Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party. He supported it at a time when the issue was much more contentious than today. Many people felt threatened by the Bill then, but for many gay people it was a time when they began to feel they were on the long march to being full citizens in their own republic.
The Labour Party is disappointed that the passage of this Bill, although its arrival here has been negotiated on foot of a coalition agreement between Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and what were the Progressive Democrats, has taken so long. In many ways, and perhaps this is to do with the character of the Minister, this is not a brave Bill. Instead, it takes a minimalist approach which sets out the minimum recognition that is now widely given throughout the European Union to same-sex partnerships. Nonetheless, the Labour Party welcomes the Bill as a step forward, although we do not feel the measure is complete and have some criticisms to make on it.
It is important to remember that in 2010 we begin a decade that celebrates the 100th anniversary of 1916, and we see the busts of all the signatories to the 1916 Proclamation each time we walk through the lobbies for a vote. We should remember, as we move towards celebrating a number of important 100th anniversaries in the formation of the State, that the people involved in the creation of our new State were, for the most part, neither narrow-minded nor harshly judgmental. We do not know much about their sexual orientation, because many of them died young and we never got to know much about their sexuality. The culture at the time was more confessional and private than now. However, we should bear in mind that while this legislation is incomplete, it is a stepping stone. As such, we accept it as a progressive move that is welcomed by many gay people and people who identify themselves as part of a wider and active gay community, but it is not necessarily the last step. Many people in the gay community aspire to a full expression of their relationships in marriage in the same way as heterosexual couples.
I want to encourage the Minister. Countries that have as much of a Catholic tradition and presence as we have, such as Spain and Portugal, have now legalised same-sex marriage and the sky has not fallen in. Those countries do not appear to be in any greater moral dilemma or in any greater state of moral perfection than this State. They recognised that a significant number of their citizens believed this issue should be addressed in their parliaments and they did address it. Countries such as Belgium, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands recognise gay marriage.
For many, including fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, gay marriage can be a very difficult concept. However, it is not an unreasonable objective to secure the right of somebody to express his sexuality, see it fulfilled or have his relationship acknowledged, honoured and legally protected in the same way as is generally provided for in law. Many people, both gay and straight, wonder why anybody would bother getting married and ask why partners should not just live together. When children are involved or when people reach a slightly more mature age, having a legal framework for a relationship, be it established through civil union or marriage, provides certainty, solidity and extremely important legal rights to the two parties involved.
Bearing in mind the talks taking place today in Northern Ireland, we should note the Good Friday Agreement commits the Republic and the North to maintain equivalent rights. The United Kingdom, and therefore Northern Ireland, has had civil partnership since 2005. While Northern Ireland is a society with a committed number of evangelical Christians, I am not aware there has been much objection to civil partnership there, except on occasions, one of which we heard about recently. There may be people who do not care for it but they have accepted it as the legal right of people who wish to exercise that option.
I, and I am sure many other Members, received much correspondence on this issue. I received correspondence from constituents in Dublin West, including Castleknock, Blanchardstown and Mulhuddart. On the whole, it suggests many older gay people strongly supported the Labour Party's Civil Unions Bill and strongly support the legislation before the House. It allows people in long-standing relationships to have legal protections. These protections become vital as one becomes older.
We all encountered circumstances in which the long-standing, loving partner of someone who became ill lacked status, even in regard to vital life-and-death decisions or obtaining information. In an intensive care unit, the biological family of the person in care takes precedence over the person's partner. It can be very shocking for a person to find himself shut out from the medical process and to be prevented from being with a seriously ill or dying partner, despite what their commitment and relationship would lead one to believe would be allowed. Occasionally, family members do not come to terms with the fact that children or grandchildren are gay. They feel that, as parents, grandparents or siblings, they take precedence over the gay person's partner. I saw this occur on a couple of occasions and it was very difficult.
Circumstances for younger gay people are obviously different. Nonetheless, over the past couple of years in my constituency, I came across a number of cases in which gay people, particularly younger gay men, were very badly harassed as a consequence of general anti-social behaviour in their neighbourhoods. Since the Garda is not able to deal with gangland crime, it is very often unable to assist a young gay man who is the subject of persistent anti-social behaviour and homophobic bullying.
In my constituency, I know of several youngish men who are almost prisoners in their own homes. Although they have very friendly contact with the Garda, by telephone and otherwise, there is a general absence of Garda patrols in their communities and a lack of awareness of how difficult and horrible homophobic bullying can be. While the Garda, in general, recognises acts of racism and domestic violence and responds quite strongly thereto, even in the circumstances of its limited resources, homophobic bullying has not received as much attention as it should have.
One effect of this legislation will be that, by strengthening the civil rights of people in gay relationships, we will acknowledge more strongly the fact that somebody who is gay is the equal of other citizens and has the same right to pursue happiness and liberty as anybody else. I hope one outcome of this legislation will be that respect for gay people as equal citizens before the law will be strengthened. This will assist the Garda in considering more strenuously the issue of homophobic bullying.
I received a letter from a 27 year old constituent from Castleknock who came out when he was approximately 19. He wrote to say he believes that, in spite of recent progress, homosexuality is still very much stigmatised in Irish society and that such stigmatisation, ranging from the swear words used by school children to the general attitude of citizens, is reinforced through the inequality of our legal system. He asks why a schoolchild should deem a gay or lesbian pupil to be equal to him or her when, in the eye of the law, the pupil is not. I welcome this legislation because it moves a step further in this regard. I hope it informs the thinking of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Garda in respect of their broad approach to anti-social behaviour and homophobic bullying.
I received correspondence from the INTO Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Teachers' Group, as I am sure did other Members. All the parties in this House and society in general must address the issue raised. Why is it that, even among relatively young children, be it in school or on the street, the terms of abuse most frequently directed at other young kids, or in an anti-social behaviour context at older people, concern sexual orientation? To hear such abuse is quite horrifying. It is particularly strong among young children and it is so unhealthy. Although one can say some children who use homophobic terms of abuse do not really understand what they are saying because they are too young, the fact that homophobic abuse has such currency means life can be made very difficult for a young person exploring his or her sexuality and who may be gay. The man I spoke about earlier is effectively a prisoner in his own home. Even if he just goes out in the evening to the shops, he is subject to derogatory commentary from anti-social individuals. It is like hunting in a pack. When they sense a weakness they go for it, expressing it in the must hurtful and demeaning way possible.
The position of children in partnerships should have been addressed in the legislation and I hope the Minister will address it on Committee Stage. Significant numbers of children are now born outside traditional marriage relationships, whether it is to a straight or gay couple. The lack of legal structure for these children, particularly if there is a sudden death of a parent, creates legal difficulties. We also have the simple situation of when a heterosexual couple has a child outside of marriage, the father's name is often not on the birth certificate or a guardianship agreement entered into. If the relationship breaks down, a father will have to go to desperate attempts to arrange a structure to co-parent or meet his children, often incurring heavy legal expenses. As more gay couples have or parent children, inevitably some of these relationships will be sundered either because of a breakdown in the relationship or death.
It is important the House gives some thought as to how to provide for the children in such circumstances. These children are, however, no different from any others. I hope the Minister will give some consideration to this matter on Committee Stage. I accept it is a sensitive and difficult issue with a variety of views on it. Every child is entitled to know who are his or her parents. Every parent and person in a parenting position is entitled to have a formal recognition of their relationship to their child. There will always be special circumstances but the law is there to provide a legal framework and maximum protection for children in the best possible way.
I look forward to the legislation being implemented. The Labour Party will be tabling amendments on Committee Stage to address specific areas. It has taken much time for the Bill to be introduced in the Dáil. I believe the Labour Party's Bill on civil partnerships is better, stronger and more realistic for current times. For those in Fianna Fáil and the Minister who are concerned about introducing this legislation, they should think about Spain and Portugal, both rather conservative countries once like Ireland, who decided to open up the doors and offer full freedom to all of their citizens on an equal basis.
I am glad to contribute to the debate on this Bill. It is an important step forward in family law legislation, recognising same-sex couples, their rights as well as their responsibilities and the State's obligation to them. There is a strong consensus with and welcoming of the Bill's provisions. All parties have put forward proposals in this area such as former Fine Gael Senator, Sheila Terry, who introduced civil partnership proposals in 2004.
I have received much communication from constituents on the Bill's provisions. Although it is broadly welcomed, some believe it does not go far enough while others recognise it is an important step forward. The 2006 census estimated there were 2,090 same-sex cohabiting couples, one third of whom had children. I am sure that figure has risen somewhat since then. Existing law makes little provision for the increasing number of cohabiting same-sex couples. Ireland is not unique or the first to introduce civil partnership legislation. In 2005, the UK and Northern Ireland introduced legislation recognising civil partnerships while Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Germany, Switzerland and Slovenia introduced similar legislation. Some countries have gone further by legislating for same-sex marriage.
This issue is a concern for some people. The Minister stated: "The Attorney General has advised in particular that to comply with the Constitution, it is necessary to differentiate the recognition being accorded to same-sex couples who register their partnership with the special recognition accorded under the Constitution to persons of the opposite sex who marry." Some people who have contacted me believe the legislation does not go far enough and they ultimately want to see same-sex marriage introduced.
The legislation, however, is an important step forward in giving same-sex couples who have committed to one another the opportunity to declare their commitment before the law and the State. It will grant rights as well as obligations under civil law. While introducing the civil partnership registration scheme, it also introduces a cohabitation scheme. This provision has not been widely acknowledged, overshadowed as it is by the former provision.