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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 1 Jul 2010

Vol. 714 No. 2

Civil Partnership Bill 2010: Fifth Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

This is one of the most important items of civil rights legislation that has come before the House for some time. It makes a clear and powerful statement to gay people that they will never again have their status or relationship ignored. As I said earlier, we take nothing from anybody in this Bill; it does not undermine marriage, undermine anybody's rights or destroy anything. We are simply giving civil rights to gay people in the form of protection and recognition by the State. I thank Deputies Charles Flanagan and Howlin for their work on this Bill. It will now go to the Seanad and will hopefully pass into law thereafter. We have already indicated that the Government will pass taxation law legislation in the Finance Bill and also bring forward the necessary legislative provision in the social welfare area.

Some people are of the view that this Bill does not go far enough. Equally, there are others who believe it goes too far. My party committed itself in our manifesto to bringing forward this legislation. That was confirmed in the programme for Government we agreed with the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats and subsequently in the renewed programme for Government. We are fulfilling that commitment based on existing circumstances, namely, that on the one hand we have a constitutional imperative to support marriage and on the other a constitutional imperative to treat everybody equally before the law. The legislation is a fine balance between the two. I thank all those who have read and fully understood the implications of the Bill. I look forward to it being signed into law by the President once it has passed through the Seanad.

I join the Minister in welcoming the passing of this very important legislation which we have been debating for several months, not in the glare of the media but in a manner that has been comprehensive. It represents an important step forward for persons in our community who were discriminated against for many years. It is a lengthy Bill of 118 pages and 205 sections and includes a lengthy Schedule of five Parts. Its provisions amend up to 130 other items of legislation in order to provide protection in law for civil partners of the same sex and cohabiting couples whether of the same sex or opposite sexes.

We have built on three important reports, namely, the Colley report, consequent on the working group of the same name, the Law Reform Commission report, and the report of the Joint Committee on the Constitution. The two main planks of the Bill are the concept of registered civil partnership for same-sex couples and legal protection for cohabitants. I thank the Minister for Justice and Law Reform for the manner in which the debate was conducted on Second Stage, in terms of the length of time allocated for the debate and the opportunity afforded every Member to comment on every aspect of the legislation, for the detailed debate on Committee Stage, and for the Report Stage debate that has just concluded.

It only remains for me, as the Bill departs this House, to wish it a speedy passage through the Seanad. I hope it will be on the Statute Book, activated and commenced, at the earliest opportunity. I am conscious of what the Minister said this evening about the need for consequential legislation in the areas of taxation and social welfare. I would not like to see any impediment to the enactment of the Bill resulting from delay or tardiness on the part of other Departments. It is absolutely essential that having deliberated in this Chamber, the changes in the tax code and the social welfare system that are consequential on what we have done here are implemented at the earliest opportunity so that the Bill can commence.

This is an historic moment. I said on 3 December 2009 when I spoke on Second Stage that it was an historic day and one that was a long time coming. We have spent several months working on this difficult but very important legislation. The Bill we will pass in this House tonight is practical in that it gives concrete legal benefits to thousands of Irish citizens who are in committed loving relationships with partners of the same sex. However, it does a great deal more than that; it brings Ireland a step further along the road to equality. I indicated in my Second Stage speech that we are not there yet, that there are several steps to be taken to complete that journey and that hopefully we will be in a position in the not too distant future to put a referendum to the people in order to give true equality to same-sex couples so that they can avail not only of something that is analogous to the institution of marriage but avail of actual marriage.

As I indicated, there are other issues to be dealt with. We must see the social welfare provisions, and the Minister has given a commitment tonight that they will mirror those available to married couples. We need also to see the taxation provisions. In addition, we must address the issue of children. The debate on the referendum on children's rights, when that is put to the people, will offer the context in which that issue can be fully discussed.

I conclude by thanking the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, which is something I do not do very often, as he will readily agree. He has approached this matter with a great degree of openness. He has afforded me personally the opportunities to participate fully when other duties kept me from working within the same timeframe as him. He has always been amenable to ensuring that the widest possible scrutiny and debate went into this ground-breaking legislation. For my part, and on behalf of my party, we are proud to have reached this point. I had the privilege of introducing two path-finding initiatives in this area by introducing legislation to introduce civil unions. We nearly got there, my Bill being passed by the House on Second Stage before being kicked to touch because the timeframe set for its passage was beyond the life of that particular Dáil. We have been waiting years for this Bill but we are here now. For many thousands of our citizens it is an acknowledgement of their true citizenship in this Republic. It shows a degree of maturity and a coming of age of the State. We need not congratulate ourselves too much because there is more work to be done, but this is a good day's work.

On behalf of the Green Party, I convey my deep personal appreciation to the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, for the work he has done. I am very much aware from this week's events that certain issues can cause difficulty for one's partner in government. I was aware from the negotiations we conducted on the programme for Government that this was always going to be a difficult issue. Where there are disagreements between partners in government, it is easier to be in the smaller party. That is not often appreciated, so I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for his courage in pushing this through even though it will cause difficulties for some Members of the Seanad.

All of us here have a tolerance for other people's personal views. We must do so if we are to be a tolerant society. This Bill is an act of tolerance and equality. What we are saying is that this is a step forward on the right road; it is not the whole picture. We must remember the fight for equality is always protracted. One need only recall the days of the suffragettes, which is not that long ago, whose first achievement was to secure the vote for women aged 30 years and over, before moving on from there. We can now move onward from this Bill. I support full marriage equality; that is and always has been the passionate belief of my party. We will continue to strive for that and I hope at some stage we can have a referendum.

This is truly an historic day. It is a joyous day for so many same-sex couples throughout the country. I convey my thanks to the organisations which campaigned so hard for this, including the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, Marriage Equality, LGBT Ireland and others. I also thank Opposition Members for their contributions. It is always good to have a thorough debate so that we can tease out the issues, which has happened on this occasion.

It has been a good day for the Government. I thank my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, for the way in which he steered the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009, a very important item of legislation, through the House earlier today. Tonight we have passed another important Bill. Members can be assured that in the coming days further legislation from the renewed programme for Government will go through this House. That is a sign of real progress. It is not just about the Executive; it is also about Members opposite making a contribution.

It is very good of the Minister to consider us.

It is important to acknowledge that.

I am not of the same mind on this matter as some of my senior colleagues. This Bill has far-reaching consequences for more than 120,000 cohabiting couples who will find themselves in a legal web not of their own making. When relationships break down, and inevitably they do, cohabitees will be open to maintenance and property claims similar to those that arise following a marriage break up, even when no children are involved. Couples getting married or registering a civil partnership expressly consent to accepting legal obligations to each other, whether in a church ceremony or civil registration. Cohabitees have chosen not to opt for either to avoid legal implications and their decision should be respected.

This legislation violates the fundamental principle of consent and is an attack on personal freedom. There is no basis to presume that legal liabilities are accepted by people living together without their express agreement. The redress scheme may become a windfall for lawyers and we have seen enough of that with the tribunals over recent years. Couples living together who wish to remain free of legal liabilities are being penalised by being forced to pay for legal advice and to conclude a cohabitant agreement to opt out of the legislation. Reversing the law of normal principles, the onus to act and the legal costs are placed on those who do not wish to be covered by the redress scheme instead of those who do.

It is likely that most people living together will not make cohabitant agreements. Where no agreement exists, there is extensive scope for legal disputes over the definition of cohabitants. The determination of relationships, arguments over financial and other contributions, claims of financial dependency and——

This is a Second Stage speech.

I appreciate that but I wanted to make these points at the end of the debate. I am at least grateful that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government refrained from bashing the bishop in his closing remarks.

While I respect diversity, even in this House, it would be remiss if the last contribution was allowed to burst the balloon of a happy day. The great consensus in this Chamber supports the speedy passage of this legislation through the Seanad and into law. In that respect, this is a happy day, a major landmark in terms of equality. It is not the final battle, as Deputy Howlin mentioned. We need a constitutional referendum so the State recognises the marriage of same-sex couples. This is only the start but it is a happy day and I agree with my party leader, the Minister, Deputy John Gormley, and the Minister for Justice and Law Reform that this is progressive legislation that is welcomed by the vast majority of Members.

Question put and agreed to.