Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill 2009: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill 2009 is among the most progressive legislation to come to this House in its long history. It enjoys the support of all parties — although there are individuals who have issues in respect of it — which is significant in that it shows that the measures it contains have the broad support of the people. The level of support for the Bill also shows that securing the civil rights of gay people is a mainstream goal and that the ignorance and homophobia which gay people and their families — fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters — lived with in the past has no place in modern Ireland. I am deeply proud of this legislation. Members of the Houses and those of all political parties can also be proud of it. The Bill bears the support and the input of all. I hope it will be claimed by all.

From the perspective of my party, our 2007 election manifesto contained a clear commitment to the effect that:

Based on our republican ethos and building on the agenda for equality to which we are committed, we will address the need to provide a legal framework that supports the rights of same sex couples, including by extending State recognition of civil partnership between such persons so that they can live in a supportive and secure legal environment.

There is a perception that the Bill belongs to one party, which is not correct. I am of the view that it belongs to all parties. As stated, my party made a commitment in respect of this matter prior to the most recent general election. The Green Party also made such a commitment. I am not sure whether the Labour Party, Fine Gael or Sinn Féin did so.

During the negotiations on An Agreed Programme for Government in 2007, Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats made a commitment to legislate for civil partnerships at the earliest possible date in the lifetime of this Administration. In government, the Fianna Fáil Party has a long record in bringing forward legislation which has afforded protection to the gay community. I refer here to the Prohibition of Incitement to Racial Religious or National Hatred Act in 1989, legislation to decriminalise the male homosexual act in 1993 and the various equality acts dealing with employment and equal status which were passed in 1998, 2000 and 2004. All of the equal status legislation enacted since the foundation of the State, especially in the period since 1997, has been passed by Fianna Fáil-led Governments.

We have, in advance of many other states, put in place an effective equality infrastructure to ensure people can have redress if they are unfairly discriminated against, whether in employment, or in the provision of goods and services. We have made it clear in our legislation that discrimination against individuals on the grounds of their sexual orientation will be neither condoned nor tolerated. Equality continues to be incorporated in the mainstream of policy making and the planning of service provision at both national and local level, in both the public and the private sectors. In conjunction with these many initiatives, which deal largely with individual rights, the Government is fully committed to addressing the relationship rights of gay and lesbian couples.

We all deserve equal treatment before the law and as we go about our daily lives. The Government is committed to playing a full part in ensuring gays and lesbians can participate fully in society without exclusion or discrimination. This Bill, by providing an important supportive legal framework for gay and lesbian couples, demonstrates our commitment to full equality. The Bill creates for the first time in Irish law a scheme under which gay couples can formally and publicly declare their allegiance to one another, register their partnerships and commit themselves to a range of duties and responsibilities. At the same time, they will be subject under new law to a series of protections in the course of their partnerships 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. They will have additional protections in their homes, and new rights to succeed to the property of one another are also being established.

In the event of a dissolution of a partnership, there will also be considerable protections in place for a dependent partner, where necessary, by way of power to the court to order maintenance, to order financial relief by way of lump sum payment, to redistribute the ownership of property between them and to provide for transfer of rights between them under any pension scheme of which either is a member. Where a person dies after dissolution of a civil partnership, the court may order provision from the estate of the deceased for his or her surviving former partner. These are very specific measures that are being provided in law for the first time. Until a few short years ago, such measures did not exist in any jurisdiction.

The Bill breaks new ground. For the first time, the State will, in its laws, recognise and support the relationships of gay and lesbian couples who enter civil partnerships. Our laws will explicitly validate and protect the relationships of thousands of couples whose mutual commitment has until now been invisible in the eyes of the State. In conjunction with dealing with many vital and pressing legal difficulties experienced by gay and lesbian couples, the Bill will also try to address practical everyday matters. It will ensure they will always be entitled to visit if their partner is hospitalised, that they can be treated as next of kin and that they will be in a position to notify the death of a partner and arrange his or her funeral.

Gay and lesbian couples routinely face problems most of us are never obliged to contemplate. These can range from an inability to access State benefits, such as carer's allowance when caring for seriously ill partners, to a man's additional grief that his partner is recorded on his death certificate as being single, constituting an official denial of their lives together. These are the real experiences of gay Irish couples and other couples will be exposed to them if we do not reform the law. Enactment of the Bill will mean that the relationships of gay couples will no longer be ignored. They will have the protection and recognition of the State in its laws.

Senators will know that this Bill had to be carefully prepared and that the provisions of the Constitution had to be borne in mind during its drafting. Were the Bill to go beyond what is allowed under the Constitution, it would fundamentally undermine the balance that it attempts to achieve. In this complex exercise of trying to achieve balance, I am grateful to the Attorney General and his staff for their efforts in respect of the Bill and for the advice they provided.

To comply with the constitutional imperative to protect the family, it is necessary to differentiate the recognition being accorded to same-sex couples who register their partnerships with the special recognition that is accorded under the Constitution to persons of the opposite sex who marry. While there is a need to respect the entitlement to equality that same-sex partners enjoy under Article 40.1 of the Constitution, there is also a need to respect the special protection which Article 41 gives to marriage. The Bill has been carefully framed to balance any potential conflict between these two rights.

In formulating the civil registration scheme for same-sex partners the Government was mindful of the implications for children. On the advice of the Attorney General, it concluded that it was not appropriate that the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill should develop principles on children that would have much wider implications than those on same-sex partners. Apart from constitutional difficulties, issues which arise with regard to children and their welfare are so significant that it would not be appropriate to address them on a piecemeal basis without a thorough review of all of the implications such changes might have for children and also for those who might be affected by such changes.

Given the complexity of legal relationships between children and their parents, a comprehensive review of the law in this area is under way by the Law Reform Commission. It will in due course help to inform policy decisions on rights in general with regard to children of non-married parents and others. The commission published a consultation paper on the legal aspects of family relationships in September 2009 and has invited submissions from interested parties on its provisional recommendations which were published some time back. Its final report and recommendations are expected later this year. However, the consultation paper did not make specific recommendations on the position of same-sex couples or civil partners. It is not intended that the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill should deal with what is obviously a very complex issue, one with which other jurisdictions have had difficulties, with or without the constitutional constraints that clearly apply in this respect in our jurisdiction.

Alongside civil partnership, the second essential component of the Bill, the cohabitants provisions, gives recognition to the fact that the legal system needs to offer protection to vulnerable persons in long-term same-sex or opposite-sex relationships when that relationship ends. Many cohabiting couples do not realise that they have few responsibilities to each other under existing law and that they have little protection when things go wrong, whether on the break-up of a long relationship or the sudden and unexpected death of a partner. Many couples are under the misapprehension that the longevity of a relationship is sufficient to provide them with certain rights and protections in all sorts of areas, from common ownership of property to next of kin or inheritance rights. However, there is no entitlement under existing law to financial support and property rights do not accrue to a cohabiting partner, unless he or she is making express financial contributions.

The cohabitants redress scheme provided for in the Bill is largely as recommended by the Law Reform Commission. It will provide protection in law for long-term cohabiting couples by establishing a safety net for a financially dependent cohabitant at the end of the relationship. On break-up, a financially dependent cohabitant may apply to the court for maintenance from the other cohabitant, or possibly for a pension adjustment order or a property adjustment order. If the relationship ends on death, a dependent cohabitant may apply to the court for provision from the estate of the deceased if, as often happens, no provision is made for the surviving cohabitant. The courts will have substantial discretion in considering such applications.

The Bill recognises the right of couples to freely choose the legal form their personal relationships should take and the legal consequences of this choice. Some couples may prefer to opt-out of the redress scheme and the Bill makes provision for this. At the same time, it is important to find a balance between interfering in personal autonomy and protecting vulnerable persons. The Bill strikes that balance by providing that the courts, in exceptional circumstances, can vary or set aside a cohabitants' agreement where its enforcement would cause serious injustice.

I will turn now to the details of the Bill as passed by Dáil Éireann. The largest part of the Bill deals with the civil relationship of gay couples. Part 2 confers power on the courts to make declarations on the status of a civil partnership where the status may be in doubt. It also empowers the Minister for Justice and Law Reform to prescribe certain categories of relationship contracted in other jurisdictions as entitled to be treated as equivalent to civil partnership under Irish law.

Part 3 makes extensive amendments to the Civil Registration Act 2004 to provide for the registration of civil partnerships. Section 16 inserts a new part in the Civil Registration Act 2004 dealing with the detailed arrangements for civil partnership registration, including notice requirements, information requirements, declarations to be made, venues and effect of civil partnership. Three months' notice of an intended registration is required unless, for example, one of the parties is very ill, in which case an exemption may be provided. Registration will take place at the office of a registrar or another venue approved by the HSE and a registration ceremony may be conducted if the couple so choose. The minimum age requirement is 18 years. Section 16 was amended in the Dáil to specify that civil partners must make the required declarations orally. This is to ensure the registrar is satisfied that the parties understand the nature of the commitment they are making.

Part 4 provides protection for the shared home of registered civil partners. It is analogous to the Family Home Protection Act 1976 and prevents the sale of the shared home by one civil partner without the consent of the other. Part 4 was amended in the Dáil to allow civil partners to establish a joint tenancy in a home owned by one or both of them, other than under a joint tenancy, without being liable for the court fees or registration fees which apply to such changes. The next finance Bill will provide that such a transfer is exempt from stamp duty on the transaction.

Part 5 allows a civil partner to apply to the court for maintenance from the other partner during the course of the relationship where the other civil partner has failed to maintain the applicant civil partner. Part 5 was amended in the Dáil to allow the court make a secured periodical payments order or a lump sum order to ensure the maintenance is paid. Part 6 allows the court to make an attachment of earnings order if it considers it desirable to secure payment under a maintenance order, an interim order, a variation order or a maintenance pending suit order.

Part 7 makes a number of provisions related to Parts 5 and 6, including specifying that payments under maintenance orders are made without deduction of income tax; makes such orders enforceable; provides that certain property is joint property; and makes unenforceable any provision in agreements which precludes the payment of maintenance by either civil partner to the other.

Part 8 provides for succession. On testacy, civil partners will have the same entitlements as spouses to a legal right share under the innovative Succession Act 1965. Therefore, where there is a will, the entitlement is to one half of the estate if the deceased has a civil partner and no children, and to one third of the estate if the deceased has a civil partner and children. A child of the deceased may apply, as may a child of a heterosexual couple, under section 117 of the Succession Act 1965 for provision from the estate if the deceased has failed to make proper provision during his or her lifetime. Unlike the existing provision in law for spouses, an order made in favour of a child may reduce the share of the estate available for a civil partner.

Where there is no will — in an intestacy — the rules of distribution will operate in the same way for civil partners as they do for spouses. If the deceased dies leaving a civil partner and no children, the civil partner inherits the entire estate; if the deceased dies leaving a civil partner and children, the civil partner inherits two thirds of the estate and the remainder is divided between the children. These rules are modified to provide greater rights for a child of an intestate civil partner. Where a civil partner dies intestate, a child of that civil partner may apply to the court for a greater share of the estate. If satisfied that it would be unjust not to make such an order, the court may order that a share be provided for that child not exceeding the share to which the child would be entitled if the parent had died with no spouse and no civil partner. Such an order may not reduce the amount to which any other issue of the deceased is entitled and the net effect would be to reduce the share of the surviving civil partner.

Part 9 extends to civil partners the same protections spouses enjoy under the Domestic Violence Act 1996. Part 10 provides for a wide range of miscellaneous but nevertheless important legal consequences of registration, including in ethics and conflicts of interest. A civil partner will be treated as a "connected person" or "connected relative" in determining matters concerning ethics and conflicts of interest. A declaration of interest required in regard to a spouse must likewise be made in regard to a civil partner.

In regard to civil liability, a civil partner is added to the list of dependants, in respect of whom a person may sue for damages for wrongful death. A pension scheme which provides a benefit for a spouse is deemed equally to provide a benefit for a civil partner.

In regard to protection from discrimination, the Employment Equality Acts 1998 to 2007 and the Equal Status Act 2000 prohibit discrimination against a person on the grounds that the person is single, married, separated, divorced or widowed. The same prohibition against discrimination under the Acts will apply in favour of those who are in a registered civil partnership, or in a civil partnership which has been dissolved.

Part 11 provides for decrees of nullity of civil partnership and the effect of a decree of nullity. The grounds for nullity are that there was an impediment to the civil partnership at the time of its registration such as one or both of the parties being under age at the time of registration, or one or both of the parties not having given informed consent.

Part 12 makes provision for the dissolution of civil partnerships and the effect of a decree of dissolution. To obtain a decree of dissolution, the partners must have lived apart for a period of at least two years in the previous three years and the court must be satisfied that proper provision is made for both partners. Jurisdiction in the dissolution of a civil partnership will lie with the Circuit Court and the High Court and the courts will have powers to make extensive ancillary financial relief, property and pension orders.

Part 13 provides for matters of jurisdiction in civil partnership proceedings, including that cases will be heardin camera; proceedings will be as informal as possible; the Circuit Court and the High Court have concurrent jurisdiction to hear civil partnership dissolution proceedings and make ancillary relief orders; and the District Court has jurisdiction in domestic violence cases and in certain property disputes and maintenance matters. These provisions are similar to those which apply in jurisdiction in family law proceedings.

Part 14 provides for consequential amendments to other enactments, including the Family Law Act 1995 and the Family Law (Divorce) Act 1996. These amendments ensure that if a former spouse registers in a civil partnership, any ancillary relief orders provided for that former spouse under the Acts lapse on registration. This mirrors the position in current family law, whereby many of the ancillary relief orders available under the Acts lapse on the remarriage of the spouse for whose benefit the orders were made. Other enactments are amended by means of the Schedule to the Bill to confer certain property rights, rights of redress and other miscellaneous rights and responsibilities on civil partners as a consequence of registration.

Part 15 establishes the qualified cohabitants redress scheme for unregistered or unmarried cohabiting couples. It implements the Law Reform Commission's report on the rights and duties of cohabitants. As I explained, the redress scheme will provide protection for an economically dependent party at the end of a long-term same-sex or opposite-sex relationship. There is much confusion in this regard, some of which is caused unnecessarily. The redress scheme provides a protective mechanism for a financially dependent partner where the couple have not formally regulated their relationship. It is available only to cohabitants defined as "qualified" in the Bill and may be activated on termination of the relationship, whether by break-up or death.

Section 170 provides that a qualified cohabitant is one of a couple who have cohabited in an intimate and committed relationship for at least five years, or two years where there is a child of the relationship. However, where one of the cohabitants is still married, neither of the cohabitants may be a qualified cohabitant until the married cohabitant has lived apart from his or her spouse for a period or periods of at least four years during the previous five years, the separation period provided in the Constitution for divorce. The reliefs available on termination of the relationship on application to the courts are at the court's discretion and include compensatory maintenance and pension adjustment orders, property adjustment orders and provision from the estate of a deceased cohabitant.

Part 15 also establishes that an agreement between cohabitants regulating their joint financial and property affairs can be enforceable, subject to the observation of certain formalities. The court may set aside a provision in any agreement only in exceptional circumstances where its enforceability would cause serious injustice. In addition, Part 15 extends certain statutory protections to cohabiting, unmarried, opposite-sex and unregistered same-sex couples. The Residential Tenancies Act 2004 and the Civil Liability Act 1961 are amended in order that provisions in these Acts which currently apply only to couples defined as "living together as husband and wife" will also apply to same-sex couples. There has been much confusion in this regard. This provision does not confer any statutory legal rights similar to the legal rights laid down in the Succession Act. It is a right to go to court to prove financial dependency. Ultimately, it is up to the court to decide whether orders are to be made in that respect.

Part 16 specifies that in making orders under the Bill the courts must have regard to the rights of others, particularly to a spouse or former spouse, or a civil partner or former civil partner.

On registration of a civil partnership, same-sex civil partners will be treated in the same way as spouses under the tax and social welfare codes. The necessary legislative provisions are being prepared for inclusion in the next finance and social welfare Bills that will, on enactment, come into effect at the same time as the commencement of the registration provisions in this Bill. There is no question of the same tax and social welfare provisions being extended to cohabitants, be they same-sex or opposite-sex couples.

As the law stands, gay couples are prevented from formalising their relationships in the eyes of the law and society at large. Their relationships are legally unrecognised and unprotected. This is addressed by the Bill as comprehensively as possible, consistent with the requirements of the Constitution. The Bill recognises that there are persons in committed gay relationships who wish to share duties and responsibilities. They are afforded the choice to register their partnership and become part of a legal regime that fully protects them in the course of that partnership and, if necessary, on its termination. The redress scheme, too, is a measured response in law to a growing need for protection of vulnerable cohabitants, people who are living together but not married.

I look forward to Members' support for the Bill, the detail of which is complex and technical, but the object of which is to ensure our law is humane, tolerant and protective. The Bill was the subject of considerable and detailed discussion in the Dáil. As I said, I always look forward to the discussion of Bills in the Seanad. I can understand the views expressed on both sides of the House in this respect, but, as the Legislature, we are obliged under the Constitution, whether we like it, to frame legislation within the parameters laid down in the Constitution. There are two significant articles in the Constitution, one of which states every citizen is equal in the eyes of the law; the other which has been confirmed many times by the Supreme Court relates to the special protection afforded to marriage. The Bill has been framed to strike a balance between these two articles.

I appreciate that there are those who believe the Bill does not go far enough and those who believe it goes too far. I represent a political party which made a very significant promise in its election manifesto. Sometimes politicians are accused of not keeping promises. This promise was made by my party and completely endorsed by the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party as it entered government with the Green Party. It was included in the agreed programme for Government and unanimously endorsed by the parliamentary party and again about a year ago when there was a review of the programme when I was one of the negotiators. Another commitment was made to pass the legislation as quickly as possible, a commitment we are fulfilling. The outcome of the review was also unanimously endorsed by the parliamentary party.

I have heard arguments from some people that I would not engage in discussing this legislation outside the House. We are often criticised for ignoring the Houses of the Oireachtas. This is the place to have the discussion. If people want to have discussions on radio programmes, that is fair enough, but this is the primary place where we should have our discussions——

——and not across the airwaves.

We are here to examine this legislation. The Government has spent a considerable amount of time on it and my Department and my officials have spent a considerable amount of time adapting the balance that is required in it. It is similar to some other legislation I have had to bring in where there has been a complete misunderstanding and, in some instances, a complete purposeful misunderstanding about the parameters within which legislators have to operate. The Government cannot pass legislation that it is advised, by the legal adviser to the Government, does not fulfil the commitments in the Constitution. If anyone wants to change the Constitution, that is another matter, but there has been no suggestion, politically, that we should change the Constitution in this regard. Perhaps in a year or two, or whenever, there may well be a proposal for a referendum, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it. We have to deal with the here and now. We have to deal with the reality in society in a tolerant and comprehensive way. This is a fine Bill which acknowledges the reality in our society. There will perhaps be people who contribute to the Bill who will be implacably opposed to the views and to the balance we have achieved in it, but I acknowledge the sincerity of everyone who will make that contribution. While I accept there may be people who will say we can improve this Bill, we have taken detailed legal advice from the Attorney General on the arguments that have been made publicly and on the arguments that have been made, especially in the other House, on other issues that perhaps should be included in the Bill and that are not in it. Time and again I have said the Government cannot propose a Bill which is advised to be unconstitutional. For that reason, this Bill is framed in a way that is consistent with the Constitution.

Some people have made the point that we should have dealt with the cohabitants issue separate from the civil partnership Bill. This argument was made in the Dáil. I do not accept that. Someone said it was unfortunate that these two issues are dealt with in the Bill, but I do not accept that. If we have an opportunity to change the law, we should take it. Time is precious enough in the Oireachtas and were we to have put things off to another day, we may not have been able to deal with the cohabitants issue.

As someone who practised in a very busy family law practice before I was elected to the Dáil, I was always very conscious of the fact that there were not necessarily same-sex couples who had difficulties in this respect — that was not an issue at the time — but that there were heterosexual couples who had not married, had decided not to marry and were setting up home, and that there was little or no provision in Irish law to protect such people who had long-term committed relationships. It is for that reason I personally was very happy that I was able to initiate this Bill which deals with same-sex couples and the issues related to civil partnership but also responds to a significant dearth in our legal framework, that is, the protection of heterosexual couples who have not married and who have set up relationships, whether with or without children. I make no apologies for dealing with these two issues together in the Bill.

Many misconceptions have been sown in regard to what is provided for in this legislation. It gives a right of access to court in order that the court can decide on these issues where there is a financially dependent spouse in the event of a break-up or a death. I look forward to the debate and, as I said, the debate in this House is always excellent. It is necessary, given that a significant body of legislation is being prepared in the Department of Finance and in the Department of Social Protection, that we pass this Bill soon rather than later. That is the reason I look forward to the forbearance of the Seanad to have this Bill passed before the House rises for the summer recess.

I thank the Minister for his presentation of this Bill. I have two preliminary points. The Minister mentioned that he welcomes the debate on the legislation in this House, but it is unfortunate that it is taking place at this time when the Dáil will rise tomorrow and there will no opportunity for it to deal with any amendments that might be deemed to be warranted in the course of this debate. The effect of that is that no amendments will be accepted by the Minister. This has happened on other occasions as we approached the summer recess and the Seanad was debating legislation but the Minister in question had taken a decision that no amendments to the legislation would be accepted.

My second point is that the Minister referred at the start of his presentation to the commitment of his party to this area in the last general election and he wondered about the position of other parties. The fact is there was a commitment to this area on the part of all political parties, with variations on the form of civil partnership or recognition for same-sex couples that would be given in legislation. In fact, the Minister's party, the Fianna Fáil Party, is a late convert to this notion of civil partnership because it successfully blocked legislation in this area in the last Dáil. I point out to the Minister that in 2004 Fine Gael pointed a way in this regard in terms of civil partnership which did not require an amendment of the Constitution but nevertheless could have gone a long way to meeting the needs of gay and lesbian people in this country. GLEN in 2004, in its summary of the chronology of key events in this area, welcomed the new policy proposal by Fine Gael for civil partnership for same-sex and opposite-sex couples as an important step forward. It said that this was the first policy proposal from any political party in Ireland for legal recognition of same-sex couples. It is important to put that in context.

It is useful also to look back at the policy paper on civil partnership which was drawn up by a former Senator, Sheila Terry. It pointed out that: "In its 2002 document,Implementing Equality for Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals, the Equality Authority said that lesbian and gay couples have no guarantee of fair treatment under the law because legally their relationships do not exist”. The document went on to state:

This situation leaves thousands of couples unable to benefit from the extension of rights in relation to pensions, residency, property, taxation, next of kin, welfare and various other areas. Unmarried heterosexual couples experience the same discrimination. For our part, Fine Gael believes it is time to end this anomaly.

That paper was published in 2004. Some of the reasons given as to why it was important to end this anomaly were: "It is the right thing to do" and "It is fair and equitable". The paper particularly pointed out:

It is not an attack on the family or traditional marriage. The rights of married couples are not lessened in any way. Marriage will continue to provide rights regarding children that Civil Partnership does not provide.

The paper concluded by stating: "Our proposals do not involve a redefinition of the term marriage as expressed in the Constitution, and are completely secular". That is the ground-breaking policy that was adopted in 2004 and it is on foot of that model the civil partnership Bill is based dealing with not only the issue of gay and lesbian couples but also with cohabitees in heterosexual relationships where they do not wish to choose marriage to formalise their relationship.

The change in attitudes of all political parties was one which reflected the changes in society. The polls which were conducted by GLEN and others clearly showed that in 2002 there were 76,000 unmarried cohabiting couples, that is, 8% of family units, while in 2006 the census showed this had increased to more than 120,000 or 12% of family units. The research was conducted by Lansdowne Market Research. The research also showed the attitude to gay and lesbian people changed dramatically over the years. The parties have been slow to recognise the changes but that is what is happening today with the passing of this Bill.

Lansdowne Market Research studied the attitude towards same sex marriage in 2006 and found 51% believed that same sex couples should be allowed to marry, 33% believed that should be allowed to form civil partnerships but not to marry and 10% believed there should be no legal recognition of same sex relationships. In 2006 attitudes had already changed dramatically. A further study in 2008 found that 61% of those questioned felt that denying same sex marriage was a form of discrimination and 62% answered that they would vote Yes if a referendum to extend civil marriage rights to same sex couples was held tomorrow. Some 70% felt that being raised in a loving home was more important than being raised by a mother and father.

We are taking account of the changed attitudes in our society. We are also recognising the extraordinary discrimination and victimisation which has taken place in the past towards gay and lesbian members of our society. The Bill attempts to deal with that by establishing a status of relationship for same sex couples which is legally recognised by the State. There will be a scheme of registration of civil partnerships for same sex couples together with a range of rights which are attached and which allow cohabitees to regulate their financial affairs. The Bill provides for a limited redress scheme where a cohabitant is left economically dependent. The presumptive scheme for cohabitants which has been followed in the other jurisdictions is also to be welcomed.

My party will support the Bill because it is modelled on the very policy document we adopted in 2004. It is a way of dealing with a complicated, divisive and constitutionally fraught issue. The manner in which we propose to regulate it is a step in the right direction. It is progress and means the Legislature takes its responsibilities in this area seriously. In the past we have tended to leave it to the courts to resolve our problems and in this case the courts here and in Europe have clearly indicated they do not wish to interfere in this area or transgress on our constitutional provisions or those of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the Zappone case, the comments of Ms Justice Dunne in the High Court confirms the point that what is proposed here does not interfere with the constitutional protection for marriage. She also accepted that in so far as the institution of marriage is described within the Constitution that what was always understood by the framers of the Constitution was the traditional understanding of marriage as exemplified in cases such as Hydev. Hyde, namely, the voluntary union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. She went on to find that it was 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. She said she did not see how marriage could be redefined by the courts to encompass same sex marriage. Marriage was understood under the 1937 Constitution to be confined to persons of the opposite sex and the plaintiff’s case was refused on those grounds.

Another interesting High Court case which was ruled on by Mr. Justice Hedigan in 2008 helps to point the way in this area. The fact that non-marital families are not protected under the Constitution in the same way as marriage is does not mean they do not warrant protection. The case concerned guardianship. Mr. Justice Hedigan stated that it seemed to him that there existed between the parties such close personal ties as gave rise to family rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and he found that the relationship of B, C and D was that of ade facto family within the meaning of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. He said he could find nothing in Irish law to suggest the family, composed of two women and a child, had any lesser right to be recognised as a de facto family than a family composed of a man and a woman unmarried to each other and a child. He said it seemed to him the State has a strong interest in the recognition, maintenance and protection of all de facto families that exist since they are inherently supportive units, albeit unrecognised by the Constitution.

It also brings one to a point regarding the lacuna in the Bill before the House which relates to the children of same sex partnerships. On the European Convention on Human Rights, the courts have not imposed any obligations or restrictions on what we do in this area. It identified marriage in the same way and recognises the wide margin of the appreciation of member states and signatories to the convention as to how they define marriage. It is left to the Oireachtas to decide this matter. It is, in this instance, taking responsibility for it.

The Bill makes some 130 amendments to existing legislation. It is very complex and represents serious progress in this area. The manner in which we are attempting to regulate the registration system for same sex couples and cohabitees is fair, reasonable and correct. There is an anomaly in the case of the rights of children of same sex couples. It is one issue about which the Minister and Government clearly have a sensitivity in terms of putting forward proposals. I am not sure I understand the sensitivity.

The Ombudsman for Children in her opinion on this Bill made some very good points. There is an acknowledgement that the courts may interpret sections 1 to 7, inclusive, and section 206 of the Bill as assisting in regulating the position of the children of same sex relationships but at the same time it is not quite clear and we are leaving it to the courts to, in a sense, fill the lacuna on which the Oireachtas is not prepared to legislate. She recommends that provision should be made in law for special guardianship orders, either in civil partnership or other appropriate legislation. Is it the Minister's intention to revisit the issue with amendments to the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964 or will it be left silent? In the context of today's debate, it is important to know whether a commitment is being made on the issue. The Ombudsman recommends that the Bill be amended to ensure adequate protection for the children of civil partners in the areas of shared home protection, maintenance, succession, dissolution of partnerships and related matters.

The Bill does not specifically address the adoption or parenting of children by same sex couples but we will fail in our responsibilities if we remain silent on it. Other jurisdictions, including Denmark, Iceland and Finland, provide for regulations which appear appropriate. I ask the Minister to address this specific issue in his concluding remarks.

I welcome the Minister to the House to debate the ground-breaking legislation before us, the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill 2009. I am honoured to make the first contribution on behalf of my party in the Seanad.

As a young law student in UCD in 1992, I recall reading about the Norris case and being astounded at the inequality in our society. I was still in UCD when the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 was introduced by the then Minister for Justice, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. Those were times of change for Irish society and I think Senators would agree we have moved a long way since.

When people look back on this Bill in 20 years time, the present Minister will be recorded in the annals of history as having been courageous. The fact that every party claims ownership of the Bill shows we are doing the right thing. Every party, including the Labour Party, has had an opportunity to input into the legislation. Senator Norris deserves particular mention for his long struggle for the rights of gay and lesbian people.

I acknowledge the Bill contains lacunae but nobody goes from awful to perfect in one fell swoop. It is important we bring society with us because I do not want to see bigotry against certain factions or minorities. Good leadership has brought society with us thus far.

The Bill gives partners in same sex relationships the right to declare their allegiance to each other and to register their partnerships. They will be subject to and benefit from a range of protections if their relationships end or in the event of the death of a partner. The stability this will bring to same sex couples can only help society by increasing tolerance. It should be celebrated whenever somebody wants to declare love for a partner and a desire to cherish him or her. I do not care what we call such a relationship, and we are calling it a civil partnership in this Bill.

I have often heard young gay people say: "I do not want to be tolerated, I want to be accepted." As a society, we need to move to that position. Enshrining these rights has no consequence for people who are not involved in these partnerships. Nobody else's rights are being diluted or restricted. The widely accepted definition of marriage is not being undermined. In essence, there will be no losers in this Bill, only winners. The ultimate winner is society.

As leaders in society, we need to stamp out hatred and intolerance. Thankfully a long list of legislation over the past 20 years, including the Employment Equality Act 1998, the Equal Status Act 2004 and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993, is bringing us towards that goal. A mere 16 years ago, an intolerable situation obtained whereby a young man would avoid announcing he was gay for fear of being criminalised. A once conservative Irish society has moved a great distance in the intervening period but it is important that all strands of the community are brought with us. I declare myself a republican because I believe every person is equal. I do not think we should be mealy mouthed about this because I do not wantAnimal Farm style equality, where some people are more equal than others.

In 18 years time, I would not be upset to find out that one of my two young children was gay because that is the way a person is born. However, I would be upset about the prejudice and intolerance my child would face in society. Today we are taking a step towards stamping out that hatred. As leaders, we cannot tolerate racism or inequity in our society. For too long, our laws have been influenced by religious values. These values should not be allowed to marginalise the 10% of people who are gay simply because it is easier to hold on to outdated beliefs than it is to accept change. We must accept change because we cannot ignore the fact that some people are gay.

Like other Senators, I have received a considerable number of telephone calls in regard to this issue. When I told one person who called me yesterday to live and let live, the person said that is what was being done until we introduced this Bill. Nobody should tolerate that level of prejudice and it is incumbent upon us as leaders to leave religion outside the door and treat every person we govern with the respect and equality he or she deserves.

Senators

Hear, hear.

A couple of red herrings have been thrown into this debate. One of them concerns the opt-out clause for conscientious objectors or a register of people who do not wish to officiate at ceremonies for two gay people. It has also been suggested that if a gay couple want to hold their wedding breakfast in a parish hall, the local church leaders should be able to refuse them. This would be a very dangerous amendment to introduce because it would create a moral hazard. Regardless of what we may personally believe, we should not introduce such a clause. I could give many examples of objections to coloured people or Travellers. The Equal Status Act 2004 is the place for those who want to amend the law to allow for conscientious objectors. This State cannot support dressed up bigotry, which is what it is. We cannot allow civil servants to pick and choose which part of their job they will perform.

There is a lacuna in the Bill in respect of the biological children of same-sex couples. If something happens to the partner who is the biological parent of a child, the child will be left in a lacuna. I accept the Minister's assurances that he will examine this issue and introduce legislation to deal with it. This should be done as quickly as possible. Perhaps we will be in a position to adopt stronger legislation in this regard following the constitutional amendment on children. We cannot have "Children of a Lesser God" in society or allow little children to believe they are second best or not equal to the person sitting beside them in school.

Senators

Hear, hear.

I accept the Minister's bona fides when he states he will move quickly on this issue.

While the part of the Bill dealing with cohabitees may be smaller than that dealing with same-sex couples, as I have stated frequently, cohabitees also need protection. We must realise that an estimated 10% of the population are gay, although it is possible that many more people are living in denial or afraid to be honest about their sexual orientation. I hope the position will change as we move towards a more tolerant society. Those people living inde facto families account for a further 12% of the population. As I noted yesterday, the Supreme Court recently rejected the concept of a de facto family. In total, therefore, 22% of the population will be affected by the legislation.

I have been contacted by many mothers of gay children who are delighted with this legislation. When children tell their families they are gay, their parents worry because they are aware of the prejudice their children will face. That more Irish people are gay than speak the Irish language speaks volumes. We must remember where we are and where we are trying to go. All young people deserve a safe and supportive environment, regardless of their sexual orientation. Tolerance is about accepting that others have the right to make choices one would not make personally. I am a married Catholic, albeit not one who always practises, who has two children. I do not have a right to expect others will live their lives as I live mine. We must realise that people have choices and are entitled to make them. People cannot help the way they are.

Donal Óg Cusack recently gave an interview on "The Late, Late Show" in which he courageously spoke about being gay. He stated his father's response on being told he was gay was that he would try to fix him. It was equally noteworthy that Donal's younger brother had patted his father on the back and told him the news would broaden his mind. Many courageous individuals deserve mention in this debate for standing up, being counted and pointing out that they deserve equality. I acknowledge the work done by the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN, and other organisations which have fought tirelessly for gay rights.

There is a group of people who take the view that their children are normal and that they do not know anyone who is gay. Most people of my age have gay friends and are aware of the impact the current legal position has on gay people. Thankfully, this is about to change with the passage of the Bill. Once enacted, it will affect today's children and the generations to follow. Being gay, like the colour of one's skin, is about being treated as equal and securing civil rights. The Bill affords fundamental human and civil rights to a section of society. Someone once stated democracy was not about taking care of the majority but protecting the minority, albeit a rather sizeable one in this case. That is what we are doing today.

While surfing the Internet in advance of this debate, I noted the following from quotation from Harvey Milk:

It takes no compromising to give people their rights. It takes no money to respect the individual.

These words must be at the forefront of our minds, as legislators. This legislation is a long overdue but significant milestone. Speaking from experience as a family lawyer, it is high time the injustice visited on same-sex couples was removed from the Statute Book. A same-sex partner cannot even register a partner's death or sign for his or her funeral. In many areas, cohabitees cannot secure State benefits and same-sex and opposite-sex partners have been excluded from many decisions, for instance, on withdrawal of life support. These issues have been discussed in detail elsewhere. As I stated, the legislation is long overdue and I am delighted it has been brought before us.

As the Bill passes into law, we must take our hats off to the Minister; the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, who gave a commitment to produce this legislation, and many other politicians who in the past 20 years courageously moved us to this position. As a younger Member of the Legislature, I believe the Republic will be much stronger when the Bill passes into law. I am proud to be a Member of the House today.

I welcome the Minister and, in particular, the sensitive language in which his speech was couched, although some of the claims made regarding full equality were a little exaggerated. I warmly welcome the superb and moving speeches made by the spokespersons for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Senators McDonald and Regan, respectively.

For most of my life, including most of my adult life, I was branded as a criminal by ancient and alien laws for something over which I had as little control as the colour of my skin. I was what was known in those prim days before gay liberation as a "homosexual". At one time I was both technically a known criminal and a Member of this House at the same time, yet I have come through to this week when we shall see the passage of a Bill that will give a degree of recognition to same-sex couples. That is certainly a remarkable and radical transformation to be experienced by any human being.

This is an historic debate and I shall do my best to understand and respect its historic nature. I will do so by dealing honestly, openly and sincerely with the truth and facts, rather than the hollow debating points employed by some who are opposed to the extension of civil rights to gay couples. Let me be clear about one thing. There is nothing visionary in the legislation, nor is there anything revolutionary about it. An historic opportunity has been missed. From being among the leaders, we are now among the laggards of Europe in this regard, falling behind not only the Netherlands and all the Scandinavian countries but even Catholic Spain which has introduced full civil marriage for same-sex couples without society falling apart. This legislation does not grant equality; it merely improves the second-class status of gay people in some practical ways.

Let us not have any sanctimonious hand-wringing about supposed unconstitutionality. Authoritative opinion obtained some years ago by the Law Reform Commission held that legislation in this area would only be unconstitutional if it purported to give greater powers to the new institution than were already given to existing marriage. That the Constitution, as it stands, is open to same-sex marriage is made clear by the fact that as far back as the conservative 1960s, a very eminent lawyer, Mr. Declan Costello, in his review of the Constitution expressed concern that the Constitution, as it then stood, was clearly open to the interpretation that same-sex marriage was legal because marriage was not defined as being between a man and a woman.

Opponents of social advance have never allowed logic or reason to cloud the clarity of their prejudice. These are the very same groups which but a few decades ago accused the gay community of being incapable of sustaining relationships and addicted to compulsive promiscuity instead. Now it appears that the plain desire of many within the gay community to settle down and make a commitment in a relationship disturbs them just as much as did their former grievance.

The first and most important of my reservations regarding the Bill is the complete abdication by its drafters of moral responsibility for the welfare of children. Yesterday evening I received the comments of the Ombudsman for Children in a report which strongly endorses my position and calls for amendments of the kind I have tabled. One would have thought that given the history of this country in the past 100 years, in respect of which successive reports have conclusively proved that both the Church and State were guilty of the most horrendous crimes against children — actively, by neglect or turning a blind eye to their suffering — neither the Church nor the State would dare prejudice the innocence of children once again. Let us be clear about the facts and cut through the deliberate and misleading obfuscation that has been created by elements within a number of the Christian traditions. First, children can and already have been adopted by gay people. They can only be adopted singly, however, which means quite starkly that if the legally adopting parent dies, the surviving parent who has helped to rear, nourish and parent the child is instantly cut off in the legal sense. Much worse than that the child himself or herself has no connection with the surviving parent and is cast adrift. What is this except child abuse? Let no one say this was done unawares for I and others have made the situation very clear. Even the Roman Catholic Church has abolished limbo and yet the State of Ireland, with this legislation, has brought it back again for a minority of our most vulnerable children.

Two letters appeared inThe Irish Times on Monday on the subject of the impact of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill. The contrast could not be greater. The first from David Wilkins states disappointment and betrayal. He so wanted to celebrate, to dance in the street and to be able to get married as a gay man. So much has been granted in the Bill, but that last piece which would allow him to celebrate and dance has been callously withheld. The other letter from David Nelson points to the pontifical yearbook 2010 to calculate the statistical increase in the number of Roman Catholics on the planet. He is pleased to note that the church continues to increase both in nominal membership and as a percentage of the global population pointing out there are now more than 1.166 billion Roman Catholics in the world, representing 17.4% of the global population. This is a vast number and in the numbers game so often played, this time by Mr. Nelson, he believes that this alone confers moral authority and democratic sanctions. He reminds us of the instruction issued in March 2003 by Pope John Paul II that Roman Catholic law makers in whatever country throughout the globe must express opposition clearly and publicly and vote against any civil partnership legislation.

The Roman Catholic Church is a chameleon-like entity. It is at one and the same time one of the great religious traditions historically and by far the largest of the Christian denominations. The Pope is its spiritual leader, but he is also head of a tiny state unusual in its microscopic size, its religious nature and the fact that the entire population is celibate. Despite this, the Pope occupies this dual position, acting sometimes as Bishop of Rome and sometimes as master of the shrivelled remnant of the former Papal States in Italy. Presumably it was acting in this capacity as a secular Head of State that the Pope issued his instruction to legislators. I will not castigate the Pope or criticise him, but I will ask my colleagues to consider what the situation would have been had any other Head of State or any other ambassador instructed duly elected representatives as to how they should respond to legislative proposals of an independent democratic government. Neither is this a back number. This specific instruction has been mentioned repeatedly in the sometimes obscene and vitriolic correspondence I have received in my office from various elements of the reactionary rump of Christendom.

Gay people cannot marry, but murderers, child abusers, burglars, bank robbers, ex-priests and ex-nuns can marry. I, a Member of this House in good standing, have no such right. I find myself in the position that is complained of universally within the gay community of being deprived of full equality.

My second objection to the Bill is to the language. There is a nasty, mean-spirited separation between gay people and the rest of the population which militates against their full equality in terms of the language used to describe living arrangements. For heterosexual couples, whether they be married, cohabiting or partnered, their dwelling place is to be called the family home, whereas in a gesture of contempt towards the gay community, for same-sex couples the home is merely to be described as "shared", like a seat on the bus or a visit to the cinema. This is despite the fact that even with its recent skewing towards the conservative right, the European Court of Human Rights has found that two persons of the same sex living together in a committed relationship form ade facto family. Under this law that the Minister thinks generous, we are not to have legal rights to children, even our own children, we are not even to have marriage, and we are not even to have a family home. Everything is to be temporary, partial and second rate.

In defence of these positions it is sometimes argued that to rear a child in a same-sex relationship is to cause him or her damage. I would like to place on the record of the House the report of the commission appointed by the Swedish Parliament in 1999 to investigate the situation of children in homosexual families. Its conclusion was as follows:

The combined research shows that children with homosexual parents have developed psychologically and socially in a similar way to the children with whom they were compared. Nor did any differences emerge as regards the children in terms of sexual development. For some children conflicts may arise at certain stages of growing up that are related to their parents' sexual preferences. These mainly relate to the fact that in the early teens they may experience their parents' homosexual preference as a problem in relation to peer groups and children of the same age. Research shows the children's ability to handle such conflicts depends on how their relationship is to their parents. Children growing up in a loving environment with the child as the focus of its parents' love and care are well equipped to handle crises and problems of this kind. Nor have any differences emerged from the research between homosexual and heterosexual parents as regards their ability to offer children good nurturing and care.

The report continues: "In the light of what has emerged in the research in the field the Commission considers that the legal differences that exist today regarding homosexual and heterosexual couples' ability to adopt are no longer objectively justified".

The same is true throughout Scandinavia with regard to the supposed detrimental effect upon marriage of allowing for the marriage of same-sex couples. The statistics unambiguously demonstrate that the rate of decline in marriage has become considerably less severe and in some years and in some countries actually reversed after the introduction of same-sex marriage. Is this not logical in any case? What else would one expect? The same values that lead gay people to seek commitment are those very values that are cherished in marriage. Instead of being the antagonists and opponents of marriage, gay people are turning into some of its most effective and ardent advocates. Indeed there is evidence, some of it anecdotal in terms of specific case histories, some statistical, to show that a certain percentage of cohabiting heterosexual couples were inspired in the Scandinavian countries to enter into the fuller commitment of marriage by the example of their gay friends.

There has been a very sinister and deliberate attempt by those who wish to deny full rights to their fellow citizens for specious reasons to co-opt the language of liberation, tolerance and human rights as a mask for prejudice. I completely reject their right to so do. The shadow of the Penal Laws has been invoked by opponents of the Bill. I have personal experience of penal laws. As I said at the beginning of this speech, I grew up in this country at a time when my very nature made me a criminal. This was not an empty threat. Many people were jailed. I know for I analysed the Garda statistics on crime at the time and I dealt with many people who were brought to court for the private expression of sexual feelings. People were jailed and lost jobs and family. People were referred to forced psychiatric treatment. People were subjected against their will to electroconvulsive shock therapy and aversion therapy. As a result, the gay community has historically displayed unusually high levels of suicide and addiction, which is not surprising when they were subjected so often to criminal blackmail.

I find myself in an unusual position for someone of my social background. I have known six people who were murdered. They were murdered specifically and solely because of their sexual orientation. I doubt if this unenviable record can be matched by any other Member of this House. That, Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, is what penal laws achieve. I think it a shame that anyone in this House should seek to rescue from oblivion the slightest fragment of such laws.

The Senator has two minutes. I ask him to address the Chair.

Let me turn to my own benches. Seated upon them is a colleague, Senator Mullen, who consistently calls for civilised and respectful debate. He has also been consistently on the airwaves seeking to undermine this legislation. He told the main radio news programme during this last week that GLEN, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, was wasting taxpayers' money republishing some of the speeches from the earlier debate in the other House. This was completely untrue. Does such untruth reflect a respectful attitude or is it a rather mean-minded attempt to smear? Its money is confined to the funding of advice and policy development in the area of HIV and AIDS. Any publication was funded by Chuck Feeney who has given €700 million to Irish universities.

We are told that we must respect the views of the churches. I do not extend such a blank cheque to any person or group. I do not automatically respect them, but I cherish their right to express views with which I strongly disagree. It was for this reason that in the 1970s, when I mounted a case in the courts to challenge the criminal penalties under which citizens like myself suffered, I offered an opportunity to the then Archbishop of Dublin or his representative to make their position clear within the court system. This was done in writing by a letter sent personally by me to the archbishop's palace in Drumcondra. When no reply was received after a week or two, I sent a copy and a reminder by registered post. There was no reply. I called personally to the house and hand delivered a copy. Only then was I given indirectly and at several removes a kind of answer. That was a denial. I have offered to debate the matter publicly with the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Diarmuid Martin, but my offer has been ignored. I wrote to Cardinal Sean Brady in recent weeks, offering to debate these laws and their provisions in public in the full glare of the media — I sent a copy to the director general of RTE Television — and have only just received a reply. Once again, my offer was declined.

This could have been such a great day in the moral development of Ireland. However, thanks to the subterranean pressures applied to neuter and reduce the liberalising effect of the Bill, although we do have something to celebrate, at the end of the day it is not as much as it could have been. We have shown that we have failed to live up to the vision of the Liberator, the great Daniel O'Connell, who pointed out to similar mean-minded and begrudging opponents of Catholic emancipation that by granting freedom, dignity and equality to others, one did not diminish the general resource of such values but multiplied them. We must ask ourselves how much greater could have been the level of freedom. How much more enhanced would our values be if the Government really had vision and courage?

Let me turn to the so-called issue of freedom of conscience to opt out.

Only if the Senator can do so in two seconds.

I will address the issue further on Committee Stage, but I would like to make one clear comment on it. No registrar has objected. Gay people are ordinary. We have common sense. What sane person, on what is supposed to be the happiest day of that person's life, would give money to somebody who has contempt for him or her, would pay someone to fry his or her hair, put rat poison in the wedding cake or anything else? Give us credit for having a little sense, even if the other side has none.

I remind Senators that time is limited and that a great number of speakers are offering. I ask everyone to respect the Chair in the allocation of time. I call Senator Walsh who has 15 minutes.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach agus cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. The discussion on the civil partnership Bill has evoked deep emotions on all sides of the Chamber and in the wider public sphere. I have embarked on a difficult personal journey in examining my conscience and deeply held beliefs and I am satisfied that I have reached a balanced and principled objection to the provisions of the Bill. In relinquishing the Whip, I regret any difficulty my decision causes for the Taoiseach or the Minister for Justice and Law Reform. My stand has caused me some angst, as I have been a member of Fianna Fáil for 42 years and a public representative for 36 years, and it has not been easy to take the position I have taken.

Before I discuss my principal objections to the legislation, it is necessary to state clearly and unambiguously the rationale for my opposition to the Bill. I am strongly of the opinion that diversity in Irish society should be recognised and protected. I realise that in modern Ireland new forms of relationship must be afforded certain protections to reflect their circumstances. I am on record as having said same-sex couples and others in caring, dependent relationships should and must be respected and granted certain limited protections. I have watched in dismay as my position on the Bill has been misrepresented and distorted. I have been subjected to personal abuse and branded a bigot by certain elements. Once again, let me be perfectly clear that, as a republican and a Christian, I abhor discrimination against any person on the basis of his or her sexual orientation, gender, race or religion.

I have a quotation that captured my imagination on the back of my business card by Pedro Arrupe, a former superior general of the Jesuits: "Let there be men and women who would bend their energies not to promote the interests of the privileged, but to the extent possible, to reduce privilege in favour of the underprivileged." I would belie this if I were to take a prejudiced position against same-sex relationships.

As a democrat, I staunchly defend the right of every person to state his or her views on any matter. As a public representative, I am acutely aware of the position I hold in the public eye and the responsibility it carries. As difficult as this journey has been for me personally and professionally, I am compelled to follow my conscience and ask those who disagree with me to respect my contribution to this debate, as I have respected theirs.

I am not a recent convert to the opinions I hold. This matter was debated in the House as far back as 16 February 2005 and again on 27 February 2008 at the initiation of Senator Norris. I put the following motion to the parliamentary party:

The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party calls on the Government to ensure, when prescribing civil partnership legislation, that they guard with special care [taken from Article 41.3.1° of the Constitution] the fundamental position of the family; acknowledges that all forms of the family are entitled to help and support; and calls on the Government to continue giving special support, including unique financial and legal protections, to the institution of marriage, because of its uniquely pro-child nature, thereby protecting the traditional family unit as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the nation and the State as is prescribed in Article 41.1.2° of our Constitution.

The Bill, as drafted, is flawed in a number of ways. It discriminates against people in caring dependent relationships that are not sexual in nature, even though the Bill is being introduced in the name of equality. It also weakens the special status of the family in marriage, a matter we will deal with as we go through the Bill. I thought these problems could have been addressed without in any way detracting from the rights and entitlements justly due to persons in civil partnership arrangements such as property settlements, maintenance rights, succession rights of next of kin and so on.

Last week I received an e-mail from a lady and it is worth quoting from it:

I have been in a relationship for almost ten years, yet if my partner got ill, I would not even have the right to be by their side in hospital. This has happened once and it broke my heart. I urge you to consider how you would feel if you or someone you love were in my position.

I responded and thanked her for the reasonable way she had presented her case:

I note your comments regarding next of kin and fully support your point of view on this. I am not at all unmindful of the major step forward it is for people in same sex relationships with regard to commitment, security, respect, social acceptance etc. My primary concern is in respect of protecting the Constitutional status of marriage, and in particular, the reasons behind that being in the Constitution.

Existing marriage rights should remain unique to marriage because of its uniquely pro-child nature. It is not discrimination to treat a unique institution such as marriage between a man and a woman in a unique manner.

I have concerns about data published in recent times which show the increase in the rate of marriage break down in the last 25 years and the growth in the numbers of lone parents and cohabiting couples. Personally, I do not think that this is desirable for society or in the best interests of children.

Anthropology and complementarity are important considerations in this debate. I accept fully that marriage is not the only relationship in which children are well cared for. However, we all form our views based on our education, life experiences, reason and conscience. When I ask myself if a child has rights, I say, "Yes." Most would agree with me. Do the influence and complementarity of a mother and father in a loving environment benefit and enhance the development of child? In reply to this question I say, "Definitely yes." Does a child have a right to a mother and a father? The answer is in the affirmative. Does the State, by its laws, have a duty to promote with unique measures the institution of marriage? I have challenged my own views on this matter and it is interesting that studies I have examined show that in the areas of health, education, employment and mental health children all score higher when they come from good, committed, loving, caring relationships within the institution of marriage. These studies were completed in Britain and the United States because we do not carry out such studies here.

I would like to challenge the definition of equality as provided by some. Equality is a concept that emerged in the late 18th century. It emerged in the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the 1798 rebellion here. The aim was to ensure there was equality of opportunity for individuals. One of the principal forms is the right to life, about which I feel strongly. We also have a right to shelter, education, employment and to be cared for in ill health or old age. Some people who classify themselves as republican are adopting the 20th century left-wing liberal thinking in regard to their interpretation of equality. I have said before — I make no apology for it — that many causes have hijacked equality as a way of advancing their own cause. I do not criticise them for it but we must look intelligently at, and interpret precisely, what we mean by it.

When we come to the formulation of legislation, independent, objectively evaluated studies must be done. In that regard, I am interested to note that Ms Kearns of the Equality Authority is in favour of marriage equality. Since it is not in the Bill, she is going to contact the Law Reform Commission to make that case. The chairman of the Law Reform Commission, Judge McGuinness, has clearly expressed her views in that regard. The Ombudsman for Children has done the same. Do people working in the public service and in institutions funded by the State have any obligation to uphold our Constitution and its requirements? Is choreography at play here?

The question of conscience has been brought up. I have noticed with alarm, as have others, aggressive secularism entirely intolerant of any contrary views or opinions. The other day I quoted Anan Grover, a UN official on human rights, who has taken a view that not only is Poland wrong in regard to abortion but that there cannot be any freedom of conscience on that matter.

I refer to an article I read lately which stated that conscience is the only bulwark against the totalitarian tendencies of all states and that this finds recognition in the present German Basic Law, or conditions, which, to avoid a repetition of the totalitarianism of the Nazi period when the conscience of citizens was mercilessly crushed, insists that those elected to parliament shall be representative of the whole people, not bound by orders or instructions and responsible only to their conscience. That comes from Article 38.1 of the German Constitution. We would do well to be mindful of it.

I said I received abusive e-mails and posters were put up in my own town. However, I also received communications from gay people who have genuine concerns that my stance would, in some way, impede progress for their relationships. I will read from a correspondence I received, which is worth reading. While it may seem self-congratulatory at the start, when one gets to the substance of it, one will note a headline lesson for all of us:

Dear Senator,

I watched with interest your contribution to "The Frontline" programme this week. Your views were expressed with care and in a thoughtful fashion and any bill before the Senate should be subject to careful examination, amendments, thoughtful argument and an unimpeded discussion. The idea that anyone who contributes to this discussion and asks hard questions and looks at options is a bigot, homophobic or anti-equality is completely foreign to me as someone who supports the ideas and philosophy of a true and inclusive republic. I am the founder of GLEN in 1988 and a FF supporter. I am not conflicted in either as a Gay man.....

The issue before you in the Senate is civil partnership and the bill can only be strengthened when you and others speak honestly and thoughtfully about your concerns, reservations and alternatives. By doing so you articulate the views of so many people who have legitimate democratic views. I sir may be a gay man who has founded and worked with GLEN and other equality organisations/issues. Today I work as a shop steward . . .

I will not stand by and have people who disagree with my views on union issues dismissed by one line comments of bigotry, homophobia etc. . .

I suggest with genuine respect that you make your views known in this debate without fear or apology and in doing so you will continue to enhance democracy and help recover any lost reputation that the political class have suffered recently. If I had the fear of speaking out in the past because my views were unpopular or not of their time, many people would not have the courage today to take their views forward to enhance this society. Any suggestion that societies development is only or best served by everyone agreeing with the most popular contemporary ideas is dictatorship by the back door. Publish your views and be assured that I will be one of the many people who will continue to regard you with respect as an honest, thoughtful man who has the best interests of our republic at heart. Need I say any more?

All I would say to that is what an enlightened and generous mind to articulate such a challenging standard of thought and debate. It is the epitome of true democracy.

I will again quote Edmund Burke who gave his views on the role of a public representative. He stated:

It ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents . . . But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.

If Edmund Burke is not a sufficient authority for Members of the House, I will quote one of the great intellectuals in history, Albert Einstein, who said never do anything against conscience, even when the State demands it. We would do well to remember that.

I spoke to the Taoiseach about my reservations and I genuinely appreciate the fact he had respect for the principled stand I took and I thank him for that. The Minister and I have been good friends for many years. A long time ago, I told him I would oppose him every step of the way in regard to sections of this Bill but hoped it would not interfere with our friendship. It is my intention that it will not.

I also spoke to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, because the Green Party is our partner in government and I did not want anything misdirected his way as to why I am taking this position. When I finished speaking, he said to thine own self be true. It is a maxim I have lived by all my life and I will continue to do so now and in the future.

It gives me great pleasure to be here on behalf of the Labour Party to welcome the introduction of this ground-breaking Bill. I am proud to be here to represent the party with a proud tradition on gay rights and the first political party to bring before either House legislation recognising the status of gay couples in law.

In 2004, my dear friend and colleague, Senator Norris, a pioneer on gay rights, was the first person to bring forward legislation. His Civil Partnership Bill was debated in this House in 2005 and 2008. However, the Labour Party introduced a Civil Union Bill in the Dáil in 2006 and again in 2007, which Deputy Howlin proposed. That Bill would have gone a great deal further than this one does. We have a proud record on gay rights and I am proud to be here to say we will support this Bill.

However, we have reservations. In the party's view and in mine, this Bill does not go far enough. It does not represent equality for gay couples. It does not provide for recognition of gay marriage and it has a most glaring omission in that it has only a very minimal reference to protection for the children of families involving two parents of the same sex. It lacks protection for children of gay parents and this is a major flaw which we and Senator Norris will attempt to address through a series of amendments.

While we support this Bill as a step forward, an advance in the rights of gay people, we do not see it as being an ending post. As the Irish Council for Civil Liberties said, this is a staging post and not a milestone. It is only a step on the way to true equality.

Moreover, I do not see why we could not have gone further in this Bill. A great deal of time has passed in which this Bill has been campaigned for. This Bill has not come about easily. I pay tribute to the great work of groups like GLEN and the NLGF, Senator Norris and many other courageous individuals, some of whom are in the Visitors Gallery and whose work has brought about this Bill and a situation in which all the political parties have signed up to this. We could have gone further given the long genesis of this Bill and the long road we have all travelled to get here.

I should declare an interest here. I am junior counsel in the Zappone-Gilligan case, which is awaiting a trial date before the Supreme Court. A wonderful couple, Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan, are seeking recognition not only of their Canadian marriage but of their right to marry in Ireland. As I said, that case is awaiting a date. The Supreme Court has never explicitly answered the question of whether or not the right to marry under the Constitution includes a right to marry for same sex couples. That question has not yet been addressed. As Senator Norris has said, the Law Reform Commission has said it would not be unconstitutional to give the same rights of marriage to same sex couples.

I will address this point further after the suspension, but may I make a final point? There is still a small number of people who object even to civil partnership and who have put their objections to marriage on the record. However, it is extraordinary that they have never explained how recognition of gay marriage would impact adversely on the rights of any existing married couples or individuals. They have never said what harm it would do. In the absence of that, we know it will not do harm. It will not dilute the rights of any other people, as Senator McDonald has said. There is no need to oppose either civil partnership or full marriage rights for gay couples.

Sitting suspended at 2 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary. Before the suspension, I was speaking of the major problem that we in the Labour Party see with this Bill, namely, that it does not go far enough. It does not provide for full equality for gay couples because it does not recognise within it the right to marry. I want to emphasise that arguing for a more inclusive definition of marriage is not an attack upon marriage. It has been misinterpreted in that way but it is far from it, because expanding the categories of those entitled to marry in law gives even greater support and protection to the institution of marriage.

One must remember that our definition of marriage has changed over time. Until 1995 in Ireland, which is very recently, marriage was seen as a permanent state from which no divorce was possible. Now, we have introduced divorce and this did not destroy the institution of marriage despite the many doomsday predictions of those who campaigned against the divorce referendum at that time. Similarly, in the US there were legal prohibitions against mixed-race marriages, a concept we would find absolutely abhorrent today. Again, this was something that changed. One day very soon I hope and believe we will see a prohibition on same-sex marriage or rather the failure to include same-sex partners within a definition of marriage as similarly outdated.

That day has already come in a host of other jurisdictions. It is not as if this is something that is a radical or far-fetched proposition. We have seen it in Canada, South Africa and a number of European jurisdictions such as the Netherlands and more recently in Spain and in Portugal, which legalised same-sex marriage in the last few weeks. Both Spain and Portugal are countries we should well look towards as countries with a strong conservative and Catholic tradition, as we have, but which recognised that this was a matter of human rights and of equality and recognised that the right to marry should be an inherent aspect of humanity — a recognition that each and every one of us is capable inherently of entering into loving, committed and intimate relationships and that the law simply needs to recognise that.

Public opinion has moved on. Others on this side of the House, notably Senator Regan, have already quoted opinion polls that show the majority of people favour legal recognition for same-sex couples and the recognition of marriage. The vast majority of submissions to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, of which I am a member, argued that the Bill did not go far enough. We should take a lead from other countries and recognise in our legislation not only partnership but also marriage. We are supporting an amendment from Senator Norris which would give some effect to that. As I said, Senator Norris has led the way on this issue for many years. He introduced the first civil partnership Bill in either House in 2004 and it was debated in 2005, a Bill on which I worked with him and which was drafted in a way that was far more inclusive and far-reaching than the current Bill.

Why does all of this matter? There will be those, such as the Minister in his remarks before the break, who say that civil partnership is enough. There are those who say the name of the institution may not matter but it does matter. There are two key reasons for this. First, it matters in law. It amounts to second class citizenship not to permit gay couples to marry. Even in the UK, where the civil partnership law is far more inclusive and far closer to the marital status than this Bill, we still see a difference in status; it is still not marriage. It matters in particular in Ireland because, of course, in the Constitution the only family that is given constitutional protection in Article 41 is the family based upon marriage. As Senator Regan said, this is a far more restrictive interpretation of the definition of family than we see in the European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence, where Article 8 on family rights has allowed for a much more expanded definition of family to include cohabitants and children, be they gay or straight cohabitants. We need to see in our law a recognition of much more diverse forms of family and we need to see constitutional change on that. However, while marriage is given this privileged status, it gives an even greater reason that gay couples should be entitled to enter marriage and why this Bill falls short of what is necessary to provide for equality.

Second, the difference between marriage and civil partnership matters greatly in practice. It is not the same in reality. What we have is a very different model to the UK civil partnership model; it is a far more restrictive version of civil partnership and it falls far short of marriage in many respects. The most glaring aspect of this is in the absence of any reference to the rights of children, many of whom are currently living with gay parents and in gay families, and who deserve and require this recognition. There are other ways in which it falls short of marriage, to which I will return, but the lack of reference to children is the most glaring omission in this Bill.

The lack of legislative recognition for the children currently living in gay families in Ireland means they will continue to be discriminated against legally as they will not have any rightsvis-à-vis the non-birth parent in the relationship. The Minister addressed this when he said he did not want to see piecemeal development but, in fact, this Bill was the right place to introduce the amendments that are necessary. The advice just published from the Ombudsman for Children, with which we have very helpfully been supplied, makes this point very clearly. At page 2 of her advice, the Ombudsman states:

. . . the Bill does not adequately address the rights and needs of children . . . it is unclear why [the consideration of children] resulted in a Bill that did not prioritise the rights and interests of children. Although the situation of same-sex couples will be improved considerably by the enactment of the . . . Bill, the situation of children with same-sex parents will remain largely as it is at present . . . It should be borne in mind that this is not a hypothetical problem. The omission of robust protections for the children of civil partners will have real consequences for the young people concerned and it is in their interests that the law reflect and provide for the reality of their lives.

It is a very robust critique of the Bill and we would absolutely share that view.

In fact, there are two references to children when one considers the Bill very carefully. There is a very welcome amendment in section 73 on succession rights to allow the children of a civil partner to succeed to their parents' estate but there is no right of succession if the parent who has died is not their birth or adoptive parent. In section 129, there is some broader reference on the dissolution of a civil partnership where the court may have regard to a child to whom either civil partner owes an obligation of support. While that is welcome, it does not go far enough and we have put forward amendments to try to address this.

I put forward various amendments of the sort the Ombudsman for Children has proposed, as did Senator Norris, when we debated the Adoption Bill. I put forward an amendment on special guardianship and both Senator Norris and I proposed amendments explicitly permitting gay couples to adopt. The Minister, Deputy Andrews, at that point said these amendments were not appropriate in that Bill and he explicitly referenced the introduction of the civil partnership Bill. Now, with the civil partnership Bill, we see the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, saying a comprehensive review is underway of the rights of children and it will all be dealt with later. When are we going to deal with it? We need an answer to that question. It is simply not good enough for the many children who are currently existing in what Senator Norris has described as a legal limbo and whose rightsvis-à-vis their non-birth parents are simply not being recognised.

There has been a good deal of talk from those opposed to this Bill more generally about the need for the preservation of marriage as exclusively opposite-sex because that is better for children. Again, I have not seen any evidence to support the contention that extending marriage rights or civil partnership rights to gay parents or gay partners in any way impacts adversely upon children — nothing has been produced to show that. All the available research shows it is the quality of parenting that matters, not whether the parents are gay or straight.

Many of the studies cited by the other side, including the infamous Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect produced by the US Government this year, do not look at all at gay parenting as against straight parenting and have different research criteria. That US study made a series of very different and somewhat inconclusive findings, and explicitly stated that issues other than family structure needed to be considered. The incidence of child maltreatment varied as a function of several characteristics of children's families, including parents' employment, family socio-economic status, family structure and living arrangements, grandparent caregivers, family size and metropolitan status of the county.

Other studies have also been done, including a recent Spanish study of 214 families of various types, including same-sex parents and families with married parents, etc. It found that young children and adolescents generally benefited from attention received by two engaged, caring parents of the same gender. Gay parents were as good if not better at raising healthy, well adjusted children than the heterosexual counterparts.

The point made in the study was that often studies touted by the other side do not address same-sex couples and their children. Instead they tend to examine the differential effect on children of being raised by single parents rather than two parents. It is an important point. In this jurisdiction marriage equality has presented some experiences from children of gay couples and those who are adults have expressed their own view that the only discrimination experienced was from other people, and they were otherwise brought up in a healthy and loving environment.

As legislators we must deal with the reality that there are gay couples in Ireland with children who deserve equal treatment. There are children who have and are growing up with gay parents and in gay families, and gay couples foster children, as the Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Barry Andrews, has said. He has said such people make excellent foster parents. Gay individuals adopt children, although they can only do so as individuals and not as couples. It is long overdue for the children in such families to be given legal recognition.

There are other flaws in the Bill and areas where it falls far short of anything close to marriage. This is notable in the area of immigration law and the recognition of foreign marriages. Gay couples who have married abroad will see their relationship only given the status of a civil partnership in our law. In the dissolution of a civil partnership there is a differential treatment, and a couple may only seek dissolution where they have lived apart for two of the previous three years. A longer period is required for couples seeking divorce from a marriage at four to five years.

There is a lack of specific protection in the Bill relating to equality in social welfare and taxation. We are told other legislation is necessary to bring those changes into effect. I was glad to hear the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, say those changes are being drafted to be included in finance and social welfare Bills, but I would like clarification on when we can expect to see those in place. I presume the full effect of this Bill will not be seen until that is done, but I would like confirmation in this regard.

Many people in Ireland want to know when they can enter civil partnership ceremonies. They have been waiting a long time and need to know when this will happen.

The majority of us on both sides of this and the Lower House look forward greatly to seeing civil partnership ceremonies conducted here. This is a Bill that is long overdue as it has had a long genesis. It does not go far enough for us but we recognise the historic nature of this day.

We will support the Bill and we will also support the protection for cohabitees which has been provided. It is relatively limited and does not amount to unwarranted State intrusion on the lives of couples who have chosen not to get married or enter into civil partnership. It will resolve the real injustice which has occurred where a cohabitant is financially dependent on a partner and who until now has had to endure a very unwieldy legal process to get any form of redress.

We support the major elements of the Bill as a stepping stone. In the words of an Iarnród Éireann advertising campaign, we are not there yet but we are getting there. It is an important step which we welcome.

In these Houses of the Oireachtas we have the sometimes dubious privilege of passing much legislation. Some Bills are quite regular in how they come to us and concern the daily running of the State. They are finance and social welfare legislation. Some Bills are amendments to previous Acts seen through time and circumstance to be in need of change, or where the original tends to be seen as flawed. Some Bills have an emergency nature and we have seen more than enough in recent years dealing with the banking crisis and the financial position. Some legislation helps to define who we are as a society and this is one such Bill.

As it is defining legislation, it does not come without controversy. There are those in our society who say: "Thus far and no further", and there are those who quite legitimately have the right to expect that we need to go further. My party sees this as stepping stone legislation and there will be further Bills to advance the continuing equality this legislation brings about. Nevertheless it is a significant leap forward and we should mark the effect it will have on society.

Most European countries have chosen to take a stepping stone approach in this respect. In France, Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom and Finland, legislation is at the status of civil partnerships. Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Belgium and the Netherlands have legislation on full single-sex marriage. We should not see ourselves as unique in this regard and the process must be followed. I am proud that we are taking a significant step in that direction today.

As a society we must acknowledge our continuing immaturity in the area of sexuality. How sexuality is acknowledged, expressed, recognised and not celebrated in our society is something with which we must come to terms. For too many generations, many have had to endure a stigma that should never have been attached and, as legislators, we have ignored the problem for far too long. If there is anything in the debate we are having and the legislation we will pass today, it will be to remove from the shadows a stigma that should not have been placed to begin with. I can think of friends like Arthur Leahy in Cork who was involved in a television documentary in the 1970s, when it was first acknowledged that homosexuality existed in our country. It is a bit like the comment about "The Late Late Show" that there was no sex in Ireland before television. We have come a long way since but we still have a journey to travel. As a result of the repressed attitude to sexuality, where people were made to feel wrong if they had or expressed an inclination or felt part of a certain society, this Bill only goes some of the way towards redressing the imbalance. I took part in recent gay pride parades in Cork, where 2,000 people marched, and in Dublin, where 22,000 people marched, and I finally got a sense, as a public representative, that we are emerging from those shadows and finally creating a society where people do not have to live in an undergrowth produced by people who for far too long expressed a vision of our society that was never a reality.

The sexual repression we have experienced in the past 100 or 150 years is not a natural Irish inclination and is as far removed from the Brehon laws as could be.

We are coming to terms with who we are as a people. In having this debate and passing legislation, we should mark it as a celebration and an expression of pride. That it is not full equality or perfect is something my party and I acknowledge. That it needs to address elements such as children and the opinions of the Ombudsman for Children is most important. The contents of the Bill will bring us forward and I look forward to the day, as Senator Bacik has said, when the first ceremonies will be performed in the country.

I wish to address the question of conscience, as it has been expressed as a retarding effect on whether the legislation should pass. I acknowledge the presence of Senator Norris and the role he has played. In the game of social catch-up this country has played and coming to terms with our repressed attitude to sexuality, we have waited far too long and experienced intervals far too wide. The decriminalisation of homosexuality occurred in the United Kingdom in 1967, but it was 26 years later that such legislation was passed here. It is almost 25 years since Senator Norris initiated his action in the European Court of Justice that helped to bring about the Irish legislation in 1993. Such an interval is far too long.

We can never have an Irish solution to an Irish problem with these issues again. This was a society where condoms had to be purchased on prescription if a person was married. How was that ever seen as a stepping stone approach to a modern society? We have come a long way. I am concerned that some repressed attitudes remain. Some of these attitudes were expressed earlier today, while others were expressed in 1993. We must acknowledge that some of the negative comments made in 1993 are being reversed and that the matters to which they relate have been addressed. The passage of this legislation will lead to a similar change of mindsets. The holding of ceremonies marking civil partnerships will create the momentum required to see to it that the full legislation required in this area is brought forward.

On the subject of conscience, I refer to John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his US presidential campaign of 1960. During that campaign he was subjected to a high level of criticism from religious fundamentalists about his Catholicism, how this would affect his role in office and how social policy in the United States would, if he were elected, reflect a particular Roman Catholic bias. During a speech he made in Dallas he stated:

I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair ... and whose fulfilment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation ... Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.

The term "aggressive secularism" has been used in the debate on the Bill. I take the opportunity to out myself as a secularist. I do not perceive secularism to be in any way aggressive. To me, it is the essence of tolerance.

There are diverse views which need to be expressed — there must be circumstances in which they can be so expressed — and upheld. However, such views cannot be seen to dominate over those held by others. It is on that point that this debate should focus.

We live in a society in which certain people's rights are not properly recognised within the legal system. These rights are only partially furthered by the legislation. When I hear it stated conscience should be the guiding principle with regard to whether people should co-operate with the legislation when it has been passed by the Houses, I do not hear people speaking from conscience, rather I hear them referring to the right to discriminate.

If we were to place this matter in the context of previous debates on social policy, the argument made in the past with regard to whether public officials should co-operate with people and whether people are divorced or cohabiting or whether they hold different religious opinions would again be made, but that is an Ireland which is dead and gone. It is an Ireland we need to leave behind.

It is left to me to make only one further point which I will place in the context of a quote from Shakespeare's play "Hamlet". I ask others to bear it in mind when they put us through the engaging debate in which we are going to partake for the remainder of today and tomorrow. The relevant quotation is, "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all."

I am proud to make my contribution in the wake of one such as that made by Senator Boyle.

This is an important and good day for the Seanad and the Oireachtas in general, particularly given the passage of legislation of this nature. I wish to outline the reasons my party and I are supporting the Bill. I also wish to examine some of the arguments made to the effect that passage of the Bill is a bad development and that it will in some way harm our society.

The personal insight which makes me want to support the Bill is that none of us can chose whom we love or the nature of our sexuality. These are chosen for us by others. We grow into them, they are not determined by the choices we make. One does not look at another person and decide that one is attracted to or loves him or her. It is something that happens; it is something one finds within oneself. It is something that represents one of the finest dimensions of what it is to be human, care and be a social being. That is what the Bill is about.

Legislation is often justified by the use of the language of rights. I understand why this happens. At times, however, the language of rights — perhaps because it is contested — is cold and unforgiving in nature. The Bill must be passed because it relates to matters of a softer nature. It is about the idea that one can love another person and that the State must accord a degree of worth to people's relationships and recognise that equality must be afforded to them.

I have considered the track record of my party in this matter. Senator Bacik detailed the work her party has done on it. Following her contribution, I discussed with her the worth of that work and that fact that it had led to the creation of a consensus which had led us to today. In 2005 my party published a document — put together by former Senator Sheila Terry — in which we argued in favour of the concept of civil partnership and outlined why we were of the view that civil partnership would be an addition to Irish society.

It is for the reasons I have outlined that I am glad to take the opportunity to acknowledge that at last matters over which we have no control — namely, our sexuality and the people we decide to love or to whom we decide to be attracted — are, as Senator Boyle stated, coming out into the open. These are issues we are now prepared to discuss and which the law is willing to recognise. There will no longer be a need for tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of relationships in this country to be conducted in the shadows. Under the Bill, such relationships will be given recognition by the State.

I have indicated my views on this matter and stated what I believe love and sexuality to involve. I am married to a woman and have two children. In many ways, I am the kind of person who others might say could be threatened by legislation such as that before the House. There are those who might argue that the Bill somehow threatens the value of my marriage and my family and the foundations on which these are based. This prompts me to ask how giving somebody the right to be recognised on the death certificate of his or her partner — this was an example to which the Minister referred — might lessen the value of that which I possess. How would granting such a right threaten or subdue that of which I am lucky enough to be a part? Does it make me love my wife any more or does it make my children love me any more? How can it do this?

I am of the view that granting this right does the opposite to that which certain people perceive and, in fact, recognises that my neighbours and friends, the neighbours I do not know and the people whom I do not know and may never meet have feelings and emotions that are equal in worth to mine. I have no doubt that this legislation will not threaten my family. Rather, it will add to it because it recognises that there are others who will be accorded the same recognition and sense of worth already accorded to me. This does not threaten the family, rather it broadens its definition and allows more people access to it, which must be good. I argue that this is a development we must welcome.

There has been a great deal of discussion about the concept of conscience and the notion of freedom of conscience. This leads on to some of the religious themes that have framed the overall debate. I try to follow my faith and attend church. However, I am a legislator and a public servant. In that context, I cannot merely legislate for those who are of the same faith as me. Neither can I legislate only for those who are of the same sexuality as me. It is my duty to put in place a framework within which all faiths and all those of differing sexualities can prosper, be secure and exist alongside each other.

That is what I believe our duty is and what the concept of a republic is all about. That is why I see the introduction of legislation such as this as being an addition to our republic and a refinement to it. It is another step in a journey we must continue to make. The idea that someone who is a public servant trusted with implementing the law would have the ability to choose not to do so shows the lessons we claim to have learned in other parts of our lives about one law being the law and having no choice but to implement it, and about all people being equal in front of the law and those charged with implementing it recognising that, makes me contend that idea has not sunk through.

A public servant has a duty to serve the public. If one is legislating for the public one must recognise that public is varied, wide and has many definitions within it. I fundamentally reject the concept that the Bill represents a threat to conscience and asking someone to implement the law which they are sworn to uphold represents an attack on them. A Bill such as this moves us a step forward and not a step back.

Another point I hear made by people who have concerns about the Bill is on the idea of choices and that deciding not to give legal status to brothers or sisters who might be looking after each other or to individuals who might be caring for each other is a reason to reject the Bill. However, sometimes law making is about making choices and doing one thing today and something else tomorrow. The fact that tomorrow one will deal with the needs of a separate group of people does not deliver a valid argument for rejecting what is being done today. The idea that by looking after and recognising the worth of one part of our community and stating that the issues and needs of another part of the community will be dealt with on another day is not a reason for rejecting what is being done today. Law making, like economics and other decisions we must make in life, is about choices. It is about deciding that a certain matter will be done today and will be done well.

Other colleagues have spoken about how this represents a step along the way and there are other issues we need to look at. I happen to agree with the Government's decision to look at the issues in the Bill and to contend with and manage many of the difficulties on children on another day. On an issue such as this, building consensus and support to allow people time to reflect on their positions and themselves is the right way to go. Implementing it and dealing with amendments such as those tabled by my colleague, Senator Regan, does not mean these points should not be made or looked at today. However, the approach of the Bill is the right choice to make. We are recognising what we should have recognised a long time ago, that to be human is to be governed by forces over which we have no control, and that is what the Bill is about and why I am glad to see it before the House and glad that my party supports it.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and I thank him for staying the course with us, as he is with this important legislation. I am very proud of the Bill and I am very pleased to be associated with it. I listened to the Minister from my office because I was preparing to speak on it. I heard him state it is ground-breaking legislation and he thanked the Attorney General and his officials. I also thank the Attorney General, the Minister and his officials because it is a very carefully framed Bill, of which we as a people can be truly proud. Those of us from all parties and none who fall under the banner of true republicans can be proud of it.

The Minister mentioned that our party in its manifesto in 2007 thought it important enough to include our commitment to this Bill if we were to return to Government. We thought it important to have a legal framework to support the rights of same-sex couples. I fought and canvassed for my party and my colleagues who ran for the Dáil on the basis of what was in our manifesto. I subsequently took to the roads and asked my electorate on the basis of what was in the manifesto — at that stage together with what was in the programme for Government agreed with our partners in government, the Green Party — to give me a mandate to return to the Seanad and ensure this vital Bill was put through. I am proud to play my part in that today.

Once I knew it was to be introduced I wanted to be on the list of speakers because it is ground-breaking. The Minister will go down in the history of the State as the reforming Minister he is. I have known the Minister for a long time and I respect his views and his values. Quite often they conflict with mine but that does not get in the way of a friendship and the good working relationship I enjoy with him. I was sad to hear an Independent Senator having a little go at him. He used a horrible phrase; he said the Minister was "got at". I shouted at the radio, as I do quite often when I am on my own——

Name and shame.

There is a name for people like me. I shouted back that of all the Ministers he is one who cannot be got at.

The Minister will go down in history and history will be very kind to him. Future generations will look back at today's debate as we have looked back at the debate on the Health (Family Planning)(Amendment) Act in 1985 when Des O'Malley, the father of the Senator sitting beside me, lost the whip in my party for voting against the party. When my children ask me what type of a country we lived in then, I wonder the same thing. However, we accepted it and we got on with it. In the same way, in 1993 the then Minister, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, went down in history for all the right reasons for decriminalising homosexuality. We also had the divorce referendum.

Last year, during the discussions on the Lisbon treaty referendum, the waters were muddied with statements that the sky would fall in and hell would freeze over before any of it would go through and that abortion would be introduced through the back door. It frightens me to think there are people who would introduce red herrings such as these to keep good legislation, as we have today, out of the State. It also hurts and frightens me to hear someone stand in the Chamber I share and talk about children of a family with two parents doing far better than in any other arrangement. It hurts me because through no fault of my own I have reared my family on my own. The thought entered my head that equality is great and everyone is equal but that some are more equal than others. Shame on the mind that can stand and say that. I almost feel bad for saying it because I respect the views of others and the views echoed here today that differ from mine have a right to be heard and I respect that right. However, I feel slighted because I worked very hard for the past 12 years rearing children, like thousands of other people, whether they are widowed, like me, or separated. Nevertheless, because we do not fit into the norm of a family as seen by other people, we are told our children do not do so as well. I am proud of my four children whom I have reared according to the motto, "Live and let live". In values they have been reared in the Catholic Church. They are not all churchgoers and I, too, am hit and miss when it comes to the church. However, I am a believer. I believe in God and have a faith. In recent days I have been told by people who oppose the Bill that I will have to meet my God on judgment day, to which I have responded that I will, and I hope God will look at me for the kind of work I am doing. I do not say I am right on everything. I hold my hands up; I am rarely right. However, regarding this Bill I know I am fundamentally right and as a republican I know I am doing the right thing for society.

If there is one thing I should say it is that I am glad the Bill is with us today. My maiden speech in the House eight years ago was on a Private Member's Bill introduced by Senator Norris. I was a nervous speaker in those days and probably still am a little nervous——

A good speaker, however.

——but I stood up and got a right earful and lashing from people around me. I believe if one has it in one's heart, one should let it come out. This matter is in my heart and I am glad we are here today putting through this legislation.

No one has a monopoly on everything. I look forward to the debate and to hearing views opposing mine. I shall make one point on the conscience clause. I always hope I would be big enough, if one of my four children came home and said, "Mum, I am gay", that I would embrace them with the same love with which I embrace them every day. My biggest fear would be that they would have to live in a society such as Ireland as been until today. My fear would be for their safety, well-being and education — everything we, as Irish people, value — because they would not be accepted.

I was very taken by what Senator Donohoe said. We cannot choose the people we love. He is entirely right about that and put the point across very eloquently. It made me think that neither can we choose how we are born or who we are. We have no control over our sexuality. There has always been a debate in this regard; is it nature or nurture? Some people will say it is a little of both. I do not believe that; I believe it is nature. I heard Senator Norris's contribution and would say, shame on us as a society if, when a person is not born as the norm, we turn our back on that person.

I am glad today has come and am very glad I am a Member of Seanad Éireann and can play my part in saying today is a watershed in the lives of gay and cohabiting people. Doing so, I apologise that society did not recognise the rights of gay people until now.

No one has a monopoly of conscience or deeply held beliefs. I and many of my colleagues have deeply held beliefs. I firmly believe, for example, that a family which does not conform to a traditional father-mother-two children model is no less deserving of protection. Love, fidelity and caring are what bind a family together. These are the marks of a family, not whatever model to which the State decides it should conform.

I welcome the Minister to the House. If this legislation had been drafted in a different way, it would have been excellent and would have attracted near universal support. Unfortunately, as drafted, the Bill merely masquerades as a piece of ground-breaking, compassionate, equality legislation. The reality is that in parts the Bill is cruel and discriminatory, not something of which to be proud. It elevates one group of people, who have a legitimate claim to certain rights, duties and protections and whose loving relationships deserve to be acknowledged and respected by all, over other categories of similarly deserving people in caring and dependent relationships. This may be permitted by the letter of our constitutional law but it is at huge variance with the spirit. It is done in the name of equality but this is a rather hollow claim when one examines the true meaning of equality under the Constitution. There is no true respect for equality in the way, for example, in which this Bill will infringe on people's freedom of conscience. There is no equality under this Bill for the conscientious objector.

I note, too, the title of the Minister's speech which referred, still, to the civil partnership Bill. Does this mean it was a cut and paste job? He mentioned that the forum was here, in this Chamber. He is welcome to this forum which, he stated was the place to engage with people rather than in the media. The fact remains this is a somewhat privileged forum. The Minister is in some way protected from what we might call the close-ground hurling and man marking under which some of his arguments might have withered. He would not meet people.

On the matter of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network receiving funding, while I acknowledge Senator Norris's correction that the funding for a particular booklet came from another source, the fact remains that a great amount of money from the Government has gone to GLEN. I have no problem with thatper se but by refusing to meet other people who have legitimate concerns, the Minister was allowed to get away with glib rhetorical responses to people’s concerns in the Dáil, responses that did not address the careful nuances in the argument people made around conscience. That is greatly to be regretted. In recent months as we debated this Bill what we have heard are stock rhetorical responses. There has been no serious willingness to engage, which says a lot.

The Minister spoke of the ignorance and homophobia which gay people and their families have lived with down through the years. Sadly, this Bill will not change that but will add further injustice. I would like to think I, too, am the enemy of ignorance and homophobia. For example, I am on the board of trustees of approximately 112 secondary schools and wish to do my utmost to ensure those schools are cold houses for anyone who would target or humiliate a person on grounds of any kind, including perceptions around sexual orientation.

The Minister spoke of State recognition of civil partnership between such persons so that they can live in a supportive and secure legal environment. I support such an environment for people, whether same-sex partners or others. The Minister said we all deserve equal treatment before the law and as we go about our daily lives. I, too, agree with that. What does equality mean, however, in regard to the specific issue of public recognition for certain relationships other than marriage? We have not had a real, thoroughgoing debate about that.

My view, which I do not believe to be bigoted, is that the right to marry is the right to form a stable, publicly supported union with a person of the opposite sex. The reason we traditionally distinguish in favour of such unions is because they provide the socially supported context for the upbringing of children. That is our constitutional position but also, I believe, the position borne out by the analysis of what works best for children most of the time. Advocates for same-sex marriage and this Bill have no problem distinguishing between couples on the basis of whether they have a sexual, intimate or committed relationship. If they are capable of that distinction, why do they reject my right and the right of others to make another distinction, namely, to distinguish between relationships on the basis of whether they provide that socially preferred context for the upbringing of children? That is the key to the difference of opinion about this legislation, but the Government has been somewhat silent on this. We hear many references to what cannot be done because of constitutional requirements but hear no real understanding of, for example, what social science data have to say about what works for children nor have we heard of any thoroughgoing analysis of what children's best interests would demand.

The Government talks about the need to validate and protect explicitly the relationships of thousands of couples whose mutual commitment has been invisible. There should be freedom to have a private life, to be free from humiliation and mockery, and to be free to confer rights and benefits on other people. What exactly "validation" means will be a matter for legitimate debate. At a time when in many quarters in our society there is an acknowledgement of the need to support and encourage people into the institution of marriage, most people, if one were to ask them, would give huge marks, for example, to the courage and dedication of lone parents but very few people would say there is no difference, all things being equal, in the outcomes for children. Most people who are attentive in a sincere way to the needs of children would say there are certain models we should promote. The model in which I believe is one where a child, as far as possible, has the right to the care and support of his or her two biological parents. That is not always possible, sadly, owing to life circumstances, but are we going to shed it even as an aspiration? The willingness to shed that as an aspiration underlines the comments of many people who have supported this Bill.

The are good provisions in the Bill, which must be acknowledged, including the accessing of State benefits, for example, carer's allowance to care for a seriously ill partner, and addressing the problem of the recording of a deceased partner on a death certificate as single. I have no problem with measures to cater for those kinds of situations.

It is interesting that the Minister spoke of constitutional balance. He spoke about the need to balance the entitlement to equality under Article 40.1 — which in reference to equality also refers, let it be noted, to the need to acknowledge differences in capacity and function — with the special protection Article 41 gives to marriage. We could ask questions about the Bill in regard to marriage, for example, whether the provisions on maintenance and property adjustment orders, rights of redress and so on could in some circumstances fetter the rights of a future spouse of someone who is currently a civil partner.

There is another balance that the Minister has completely failed to take into account and this why the conscience issue is so important. It is the need to balance the State's ability to provide for a model of civil partnership and its need to require that its officials enable it to carry out that new legal responsibility with, on the other hand, a recognition that on this issue there are sincere and divergent views in our society. This issue is not the new slavery. Many people who have been very strong over the years in advocating for rights, whether of immigrant people or members of the Traveller community, have what some people in this House would call a conservative view on traditional sexual morality. It seems that Senator Boyle would refer to it as a continuing immaturity in regard to sexuality. I regret those comments because whereas I support the removal of stigma in general terms, I believe there are truths and disagreements about what is true when it comes to discussing what works best for people. There are divergent moral views in the areas of sexuality and to what relationships the State should give public recognition and privileges. Does Senator Boyle believe that classic Christian teaching on sexuality is a sign of immaturity? In his comments there is a reaction against the narrowness and meanness of the past when people were humiliated, mocked, derided, treated as different and their lives were made miserable as a result. However, one is going to the other extreme if one insists that people who have what one might call a traditional, conservative view on what relationships should get State support and particular recognition, leaving aside the issue of sexuality, also have a view that is what we might call officially discouraged and that they might face the might and the rigour of law in certain circumstances. That is more redolent of Communist Russia where religion was officially discouraged. The balance that the Minister has missed out on here is that he has forgotten, or chosen to ignore, the protections specifically given to freedom of conscience in our Constitution and to the rights of churches, among other groups, to organise and manage their own affairs.

On the John F. Kennedy issue, there needs to be a very careful discussion about the interconnection between faith and politics. My belief is different from Senator Boyle's. I believe that everyone has the right and the duty to bring their understanding of reality to the ballot box and into their job as legislators. However, as a legislator, I may start from a point of view, I may try, as Senator Donohoe said, to be Christian in my life and try to live out my faith, but when I make an argument on public policy, I make an argument that can also be shared by people who do not share my religious views or who, perhaps, do not have any religious views. When debating the issue of abortion, for example, it would be wrong to categorise those who have a conservative position as coming from a religious perspective which means, therefore, we do not need to engage with their argument. What nonsense, what intolerance and what anti-intellectual rubbish.

The same principle applies to the issues in this debate. If I make a point that the State ought to support the institution of marriage, I believe the social data on marriage supports the notion that marriage is what works best for children and I can point to it supporting that notion. If I further believe it is unjust to give particular privileges to couples on the basis of a sexual, intimate relationship other than a more general caring, dependent relationship, that certain religious people whose concerns I may not personally share feel that in conscience they want to go the other way, for example, that they would rather not rent a facility, and that those people should be catered for in a pluralistic society, that is not coming from a religious inspiration and it should not be categorised as some old fashioned, narrow kind of bigotry. What I am proposing is something much healthier than what the Minister is proposing or what the Green Party is supporting, which is a form of moral coercion. The Government has gone from the old extreme of the past, where people were morally coerced into one kind of lifestyle, to a new extreme whereby, in future, if people who differ in conscience — the most respectable and law-abiding people who are members of the families of the parties in government — dare to signal a conscientious objection to civil partnership because they have a particular view about the importance of marriage in society, the Government will impose the full rigours of the law on them. I can only say shame on it for contemplating such an approach. The same goes for an individual or an institution which has a property which, were it to rent it out in certain situations, might feel in all conscience it would be violating its ethos.

I remind the Minister of section 37 of the Employment Equality Act. Our equality legislation is full of legitimate exemptions to deal with different types of situations related to age, height in some cases, and gender in some cases, such as where one was hiring a person to look after one's mother and give her intimate care. There are many exceptions in equality legislation. Surely it is possible to recognise that we live in a society where there are divergent moral views. Can the majority here not be tolerant enough to recognise that and say it does not impinge on the implementation of the civil partnership legislation if we allow such people to courteously and constructively disengage? Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act allows religious-run institutions to make necessary decisions——

I doubt if it would pass today.

It is interesting that the Supreme Court said that this legislation might not be constitutional if there were not such an exemption. If that is true in regard to employment matters, given the implications for employment for people who might have complained about that legislation, surely it appliesa fortiori that when all one is doing is withdrawing from the provision of a particular service in circumstances where people may go elsewhere for the service, there is even less of an incursion into people’s rights. It should be possible to provide for legitimate differences here and I suspect the Minister is acting unconstitutionally in failing to take account of that argument.

To return to the core values that underlie this legislation, an issue we must address is the equal dignity of all people. All people are equal in dignity. It cannot ever be denied and it ought not be denied. This is not an argument between people who think that homosexuality is sinful and people who think it is okay. It wrong to characterise the argument as being based on such polar oppositions. Many people have very strong support for people's right to a private life, for their right to their values and for their right to love whom they want, but they also support the right of society to make certain values known, to support certain ideas around family and so on. On Committee Stage I will look in more detail at the some of the evidence which supports the point of view that there is a case to be made for distinguishing in a particular way and giving particular privileges to marriage over and above all comers, regardless of their sexuality or other considerations.

I have heard good speeches from both sides of the House. I compliment Senator Walsh, in particular, on taking a stand, which is not easy to do, against his friends and party. Our democracy is the poorer for the fact that the many in Fine Gael who had concerns about the Bill were not allowed to table amendments in the Dáil. Our democracy is poorer for the fact that the Bill was passed in the Dáil without a vote. It is very easy to pretend, when everybody is in agreement, that we have reached a new nirvana of tolerance, rather people have chosen to hide their intolerance behind the party Whip. A lot of people in our society who are not bigots and respect the private lives of others do not agree with the parties which were not willing to celebrate diversity.

I welcome the Minister. This is ground-breaking legislation and I feel very proud to be standing in Seanad Éireann as a Senator. It was interesting to listen to the previous speaker. Because of what he said, I would like to explore the issue of tolerance. As we are on Second Stage, we can explore some of the issues issues rather than the specifics of the Bill. I do not see where the issue of conscience arises on the Bill and would like to use the word "principle". This is a matter of principle, rather than conscience. People have values. We are here as the representatives of all the people, not of any narrow group, and we have to represent the people to the best of our ability. Tolerance, therefore, is very important. As Senator Mullen said, it is crucial that we accept that there are divergent views. I also accept that it is important that we have a vote on the Bill and it will be good to do so. I hope and expect there will be an overwhelming majority in favour of it, as we have moved on.

My mother is English and came to Ireland from London in the 1960s. She moved to Thurles, where I was born and which was a very interesting place. The first place she lived in was Senator Hanafin's father's hotel. She told me she was the first woman in Thurles to wear trousers, which was extraordinary, and that ladies dressed in shawls spat at her. Ireland was very different then. It was a society which was not tolerant of change in the way it is today.

What does that have to do with the issue of civil partnerships? Our society has changed enormously during the years. If one considers the figures, one will find that in 1996 there were 150 registered same-sex couples. In 2006 there were more than 2,090. Does that tell one there has been a huge increase in the number interested in being part of a same-sex couple? I do not believe that is what it tells us, rather it tells us that our society has changed and that people are now more comfortable in admitting they are gay. I hope we will see a lot more people admitting they are gay because one does not have to be in the closet. I hope it is something people will say with pride and honour and without fear that they will be abused by others or have to deal with some other issue.

I wish to return to the point of principle rather than conscience. Legislation concerns the law, not matters of conscience. Conscience falls within the realm of spirituality, religion and feelings. This is not a matter of conscience. We are dealing with civil partnerships, not religious ceremonies. It is simply a matter of principle. I respect the right of people to have principles which are not the same as mine, those of my political party or the majority. We have to be tolerant.

I have spoken to members of an older generation who have said they can accept civil partnership but not gay marriage. That is the current position. According to Lansdowne Market Research, some 51% — a very narrow majority — would accept gay marriage, whereas 84% are prepared to accept civil partnership. It is clear, therefore, that the majority are prepared to accept the Bill.

Like Senator Boyle, I give credit to the House. In 2004 Senator Norris introduced the Civil Partnership Bill. I also give credit to the Labour Party. Senator Bacik made an impassioned speech and has done a lot of work on this issue. In 2006 the Labour Party introduced the Civil Unions Bill which was groundbreaking legislation and laid the basis for the Bill which I hope we will pass today.

This is a complex Bill which I understand refers to 130 pieces of legislation. For the first time we are recognising something other than marriage in the context of equality. For those who believe the Bill does not go far enough, it needs to be recognised how far it goes. It is groundbreaking legislation. I feel great pride as an Irishman in being able to support it.

An Irish rock star in the 1980s had a song called, "Love and Pride" — I understand he was called King. I will not sing it.

Was he called Queen?

No, it was not Queen but King. "Love" and "pride" are the words I have heard more than any other. "Pride" is a word associated with the gay community. "Love" is also a very important word but is not something which can be legislated for, as previous speakers said. We are recognising people's right to feel love for each other and to find a way at last of enjoying a legal partnership. It is a legal, not a religious or spiritual partnership. Whatever happens, I hope all Senators will come to recognise that this is a very important Bill which we will accept and move on. I have examined it and the dissolution of a civil partnership and divorce are not the same. There is a difference between civil partnership and marriage; they are not the same in the terms of the rights given. As Senator Boyle said, this Bill is a stepping stone. I would like to see us move towards a situation where society will move towards recognising gay marriage. That will be a matter for the people to decide, not the Seanad. When they are ready to decide, they will do so.

With love and pride I stand here as a proud Irishman and commend the Minister for bringing the Bill before the House. I look forward to the outcome of the votes later.

I wish to share time with Senator Alex White.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister. I know of many people of my generation and older who never thought this day would come because until the mid-1990s when we saw the legalisation of homosexuality in Ireland, there were many citizens living in the shadow lands of Irish life. Today they will feel proud of their Parliament and country in introducing this Bill. As Senator Bacik said, we would like to see it go further, in dealing with the needs of children in particular, but we will support its passage, with the intention of reviewing it when we next enter government. We view this Bill as a stepping stone on the way to full equality for gay citizens. Same sex couples are becoming more common in Ireland. The 1996 census recorded only 150 same sex couples but this figure rose to 1,500 in 2002 and 2,000 in 2006.

However, the law has not kept up with the pace of change and these relationships have no legal recognition at present. We have been happy to lead the world in other areas such as the plastic bag levy but, as Senator Boyle has noted, we have been slower to move in the areas related to sex. This can be seen in our laws on contraception, divorce and homosexuality. The ban on homosexuality was only removed 17 years ago thanks to Senator Norris and others. On most matters pertaining to sexual relationships this country has been relatively slow in making progress. Spain, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden have passed legislation to allow gay marriage. Four out of five of these introduced civil unions initially and then progressed to full civil marriage after a number of years. Denmark, Finland, Germany, the UK and Slovenia have passed civil partnership laws. At this stage, therefore, almost half of our European neighbours have passed laws allowing civil partnership at least.

My party introduced our own civil unions Bill to offer same sex couples the greatest measure of equality possible under our Constitution. It would have afforded same sex couples access to a relationship which is similar to marriage in every practical way, including the right to adopt a child. As I accept that the Labour Party Bill will not proceed while we remain in Opposition, I welcome the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill 2009. It addresses issues relating to inheritance rights, power of attorney and next of kin. I note the Minister has stated that he will deal with other matters such as tax and social welfare issues in future Finance Bills. I accept the Government's commitment on this but I will be watching closely to ensure it delivers. I am disappointed, however, that the Bill does not address the issue of children. We will be tabling amendments on Committee Stage with a view to improving the legislation. I hope the Minister will accept at least some of these amendments but, if not, it is our intention to update the legislation to give effect to these amendments when we next enter Government.

I recognise there is still an element of opposition to any legislation in this area. It is clear from walking through the gates of Leinster House today and reading some of the e-mails that my colleagues and I have received, that a number of people are uncomfortable with this legislation. Many of these are good, fair minded people and I recognise that their concerns are heartfelt. Some are uncomfortable because they find the whole issue of homosexuality objectionable, based on their own moral or religious standpoints. However, they also accept that Ireland grants certain rights to its citizens. It has to be said to those concerned citizens that while this legislation may be unpalatable to them they should consider it as a price worth paying for the protection and continuance of their own rights and privileges.

Others are uncomfortable because they see this as in some way undermining the institution of the family. I ask these people to think again about their concerns because, on the contrary, it strengthens that institution. It will allow many couples who are currently unable to make a public record of their relationship to show their love, support and commitment to one another.

There have been calls for a freedom of conscience clause. My view is that a public servant is tasked with implementing the law of the land. It is no different if a registrar is asked to preside over an interracial or interdenominational union.

There is strong evidence to suggest that civil partnerships benefit society. A regulatory impact assessment in the UK prior to the introduction of legislation there suggested that such partnerships will help the economy because it can be expected that civil partners will share their resources and support each other financially, thereby reducing the demand for support from the State. A study in Denmark found that the introduction of civil partnerships led to significant benefits to society, including a reduction in the suicide rate.

As someone who keeps an ear to the ground and speaks to people on their doorsteps on a regular basis, I am convinced that the vast majority of Irish citizens have a live-and-let-live attitude to this issue. I do not believe they have any interest in denying same-sex couples the right to take care of a sick loved one, inherit the family home or commit to each other for better or for worse. Legislating for same sex couples is the right thing to do and it will bring us into line with our neighbours. It will not lead to the end of civilisation. It will bring benefits to society and, most importantly, it will provide security and fairness to a small section of our society who are currently not protected by law. I will be voting to support this Bill.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on Second Stage of this hugely important and momentous legislation. As my colleagues, Senators Hannigan and Bacik, have indicated, the Labour Party enthusiastically supports the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations for Cohabitants Bill 2009. We will try to amend it in some areas and, while we can to some extent predict the Minister's response to our proposals, we will push them as strongly as we can. We hope to expand on the vital work done on this Bill with further legislation when the Labour Party is in Government.

I think this is the first time since I entered the Oireachtas three years ago that I have commended the Government on any issue but I am happy to congratulate it on bringing this legislation before the Houses. I also acknowledge the heavy lifting that was required from the Green Party in order to bring the matter to its present status.

When we discuss this Bill in more detail on Committee Stage, we should not forget that we are trying to improve the lives of individual citizens. We should, therefore, also congratulate the thousands of campaigners who have fought for this legislation. None of this would happened without people who were prepared to go to meetings, spend time on campaigns and work out how incremental change could be achieved. Perhaps some felt they were compromising themselves while others wanted to progress their goals without being seen as incrementalists but they made the same intelligent political decision as so many other figures in history by accepting this Bill as legislation that could be achieved and leaving for another day the fight to build something better. For that reason, I am delighted to be a Member of this House as this Bill comes before us.

I wish to respond briefly to the conceptual issues raised by Senator Mullen. He stated the legislation might find favour across the House if it had been drafted in a different way but he did not tell us what changes were required to meet his approval. It is not enough to say he could have supported the legislation if it was drafted in a different way. Perhaps if it was never introduced people would have felt comfortable. I have much more respect for people who say they do not agree with or believe in the legislation because they think it is wrong. I have no difficulty with people saying in Parliament that we should not have it or we should vote against it but what does it mean to say it should be drafted in a different way?

The legislation is not discriminatory. In regard to the so-called conscience clause, I have never come across such a contrivance masquerading as a basis for opposing legislation.

It is a complete fabrication. The opponents of this legislation are creating a class of people that they posit will have a difficulty. There is no evidence that such a difficulty would ever be felt by people or has been expressed. It has been wholly contrived and fabricated to try to create a basis for objection to the legislation on equality grounds. Examples have been given, including by the Minister in the Other House, to which we will return later. It is simply inconceivable, however, that if someone is appointed to be a judge, for example, of the Circuit Court which administers the divorce legislation, he or she would refuse to make an order for divorce in circumstances in which he or she has a difficulty or objection to it on a personal basis or as a matter of conscience. It is not conceivable that the Houses of the Oireachtas would pass legislation providing for a so-called freedom of conscience clause. The torturous way in which this matter has been imported into the debate is dishonest. Opponents of the legislation should come to the House and argue against the Bill. The notion that freedom of conscience is a factor in this matter is utterly implausible.

I struggle with the issue of people objecting to this Bill because their argument is dressed up as if they are being excluded from the debate. Senator Mullen, for example, states he has a right to make a distinction between what is proposed and what he regards as being the traditional and most desirable form of marriage. He has a right to hold this point of view, campaign and argue for it, urge the education system to promote it to a greater extent or raise the issue in the House as often as he wishes. I do not seek to demean the point the Senator makes. For two years, the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, in which the Minister was involved, debated this issue. The wording of the proposed constitutional amendment produced by the joint committee, which I do not have before me, makes clear that children are best cared for in a loving relationship in the family in which they are brought up.

Nobody is arguing that Senator Mullen cannot maintain his view as to what constitutes a desirable and satisfactory form of marriage. Who has argued otherwise? The Senator argues that we are shedding this as an aspiration. How is this done in the legislation? I genuinely cannot understand his argument given that he can continue to maintain, promote and campaign for his view and aspiration? In what respect is the Senator excluded? He and others who share his view are able to maintain their view. The task of legislators is to make laws. In the case of this legislation, our task is to make a law that is not directed towards a particular philosophical or traditional view of marriage but to legislate for all those in relationships and none. It is not our role to promote a particular religious or moral standpoint.

There is no difficulty in us continuing to have divergent views. I object to the suggestion that because people find themselves in a minority on an issue, they are somehow being subjected to what is being described as "aggressive secularism". I fail to understand precisely what this notion means given that Members are freely and openly legislating and are prepared to debate with Senator Mullen and others any changes they wish to propose. No one is excluding debate or arguing that people cannot hold certain views. A disingenuous attempt is being made to try to portray those who oppose the legislation as being shut out of public debate or precluded from advocating certain views. They have every entitlement to do so.

This is a great and bright day in what is a relatively dark period for the country in many other respects. The Bill is a major step forward and a great tribute to all of those who have been involved in it. As a citizen, a legislator and the brother of a gay man, I am thrilled to be in the House for this debate.

One of the benefits of speaking later in a debate is that one has an opportunity to listen to the views of earlier speakers. I hope to give Senator Alex White reasons some of us oppose sections of the Bill and have proposed amendments thereto. When one listens to other speakers one also hears inaccuracies. I know certain of the Senators present are pushing strongly for gay marriage in the belief that this is an area in which we can reach a certain type of enlightenment if we follow the European and American route. I have news for the Senators in question. We have seen the future and it is as follows. Last week, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that gay marriage is not a human right. Moreover, California, which is associated with Hollywood, flower power and Arnold Schwarzenegger, recently voted against gay marriage. That is the future.

Reference was made to my home town of Thurles. I raise this issue because Thurles was made to appear like Birmingham, Alabama, or Little Rock, Arkansas. I assure the House that it is a fine town of good, decent and tolerant people who would offer assistance if asked to do so. I do not like my home town being presented as if it was a bigoted place.

We also heard the words of President John F. Kennedy being misquoted. The words cited were used out of context. In the 1960s, President Kennedy made a speech in Dallas in which he referred to the politics of the time. His sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, has repeatedly made clear, without contradiction by any other member of the Kennedy family, that John F. Kennedy was pro-life. There is a limit to the distance some people are prepared to go in separating their sincerely held religious beliefs from their civic duty.

Those who regard opponents of the Bill as negative are wrong. Truly inclusive civil partnership would include all couples in caring dependent relationships, including same sex couples, cohabiting couples and individuals in caring relationships which are non-sexual, and give such persons rights that would protect them against economic vulnerability in the event of a break-up. A group of Senators will propose an amendment to this effect.

The rights to which the amendment refers should include property settlement and maintenance rights, succession rights and next-of-kin rights, while other existing rights should remain unique because marriage is uniquely pro-child. It does not discriminate to treat a unique institution such as the marriage of a man and woman in a unique manner.

It is proposed in the Bill that the words "marital status" be removed from other Acts such as the Pension Act 1990, Employment Equality Act 1998, Equal Status Act 2000 and Civil Registration Act 2004 and replaced with the words "civil status". This strongly implies that there is a direct equivalence between marriage and civil partnership and tends to undercut the argument of those who state they are different. We will recommend on Committee Stage that the Bill be amended to read "marital status and civil partnership status".

We also fundamentally believe that a constitutional challenge may be taken to the legislation on the basis of equality. There is no doubt that the Bill should provide protection for religious organisations and individuals who conscientiously object to facilitating events and services where such conflict with their religious ethos. We will recommend that the Government accepts the conscience clause proposed by two Church of Ireland bishops. It is worded in such a way that the unintended consequences feared by some cannot occur.

What do I mean by the words "unintended consequences"? This morning, I walked through the grounds of Christ Church, a beautiful Presbyterian church on Rathgar Road. I was taught how one should dance properly in a hall located under the roof of the church. It would be unfair to ask to hold a civil ceremony breakfast or celebration in this hall, located as it is within church grounds, if the church authorities are unwilling to do so.

It would be unfair to ask if those people did not wish to have, what should we call it, the civil ceremony breakfast or celebration in that hall within church grounds. This was catered for previously in 1997 when the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of section 37 of the Employment Equality Act. This section exempts religious employers from aspects of employment equality legislation and in so doing allows them to protect their ethos. In other words they do not need to employ people who would undermine their ethos. In arguing in favour of the constitutionality of section 37, counsel for the Attorney General argued that the Employment Equality Act had to contain section 37 in order to give effect to Article 44.2.1° of the Constitution, which states: "Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen." If section 37 was necessary to ensure the constitutionality of the Employment Equality Act, then logically a similar section should be added to the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill in order to protect freedom of religion and conscience as required by Article 44.2.1°. The absence of such a section surely calls into question the constitutionality of the Bill. There is an alternative and where there is an alternative, it is grossly unfair to put a church, and those responsible for the church building and ethos, into such a position.

There is a difficulty with the inheritance provision which appears to be anti-family. The children of a deceased civil partner could be seriously disinherited if the partner dies intestate.

We do not have a schedule of financial costs involved in the Bill. It is unusual not to have a breakdown of the costs to the Exchequer over the ensuing years. If that could be arranged, it would be helpful. With that in mind, I wish to mention one further speaker who quoted Hamlet: "Thus doth conscience doth make cowards of us all", implying that those who vote according to their conscience are cowards. I wish to deal with that in the context of the three people in Fianna Fáil because that is the specific reference. I come from a family that has for generations supported the republican ethos. I know there was a man in Clare who was asked how long he had supported Fianna Fáil. His answer was "98". He was asked if that meant 1998 and he said "No, 1798". He believed he had supported Fianna Fáil from the start of the republican movement in 1798. Thankfully I can trace a direct line back to that time, through the Fenians and the War of Independence. There were two active service members, my grandfather and grandmother, founder members of Fianna Fáil. If somebody thinks it is easy or that it is cowardly to give up the whip in a party in which I solemnly believe and sincerely believe what it is about, then surely they are mistaken. It is a most difficult thing to do when the repercussions of losing the party whip are ending up outside the parliamentary party. For some of us that is like being outside the door of the family home. Senators should not feel for a moment that acting on one's conscience is the same——

It is shared, because the Green Party is part of the Government.

Senator Norris looks for freedom of speech for people 6,000 km away or 600 km away and will not allow people to speak in the House. I ask to be allowed to speak uninterrupted.

Senator Hanafin to continue, without interruption. The Senator has one minute remaining.

It is most difficult for people to act on their conscience at times, but they need to do it.

This is not an easy day to stand up and speak when one hears such differing views across the floor. However, it is an important day for Ireland and represents a coming of age for our nation. If one likes it is Ireland growing up and maturing? That has to be difficult in light of what the previous speaker said.

I am happy to support the legislation. I would like to outline how I view this in my life and in the people I meet every day. It is important for me to make judgments that do not necessarily influence me directly, but as a legislator I have a responsibility to be good for those who have been and are still marginalised. I am a heterosexual female married in a traditional family unit. I do not feel the Bill threatens my personal status as a married person or threatens the state of marriage. I was gobsmacked to hear David Quinn from the Iona Institute speak on "The Frontline" about how threatened he felt marriage was by this Bill. He said marriage needed a good PR job just as we have healthy living programmes and advertisement campaigns on television. Why does he feel so threatened? Why is he so unconfident? I have complete confidence in marriage and that marriage will continue to be very popular.

I have not had a difficulty growing up or living in Ireland. I have been fortunate because I was part of the mainstream because I was heterosexual. However, what about those who are not from that mainstream group and are one of the approximate 10% of people who now say they are not straight and are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender? That is a large number of people potentially without basic rights who have from my knowledge of them in some cases suffered personal torture prior to coming out and also after coming out. The Bill delivers basic civil rights, as I believe I heard the Minister describe it. It provides for property rights under the Residential Tenancies Act, succession rights, wrongful death action rights under the Civil Liability Act, power of attorney rights and personal safety rights under the Domestic Violence Act. The Bill makes 130 amendments to existing legislation and from that point of view this is ground-breaking legislation.

Let us consider whom this legislation helps and some of their personal stories. With a research partner in St. Patrick's College in Drumcondra, I recently completed research on early school leaving. One of the groups we interviewed were lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pupils at second level and post second level. There were people who dropped out of school because they were excluded as a result of their sexuality. This is happening today in Ireland. Young people continue to suffer exclusion, bullying and homophobia. Their early drop-out rate was not for traditional reasons. It was not necessarily because of poverty, poor home support, literacy difficulties or other learning difficulties. It was because they were not understood or accepted because of their sexuality. This is about real social exclusion in school, class groups and society today. The Bill will go a long way towards normalising their sexual identity.

I also had a very humanising experience when I interviewed a fine 19 year old young man who was gay. He told me that he grew to know he was different in his sexuality at the age of 12 or 13. He said that he suffered total horror in changing rooms prior to PE class, which is a common occurrence for boys coming to terms with their emerging homosexuality and becoming aware that they are different. I found that a very important learning experience about the very basic need in our schools. We even provide for separate dressing rooms for people according to their sexuality. He had to drop out of school because of the pressure he was under as a young homosexual man. What struck me was his humanity.

I am the mother of two children. If I was the mother of a young gay son, would I not want the rights accorded in the Bill to apply to him? Yes, I would. A family friend recently told me that her son had just come out at the age of 17 and a half. It was at a difficult time during the leaving certificate mock exams and a very difficult adjustment for the family to make and the consequences were layered. There are still problems and we are talking about so many technicalities in law. Let us talk about the human reality in Ireland today. Before this boy had the courage to tell his parents, he had panic attacks which were not due to the exams, as his parents thought, but the fact that he could no longer hide the fact that he was gay. His parents had many fears such as that he might be beaten up or promiscuous. Over the course of the last three months they have worked through a lot as a family and still have a long way to go. This is all the more reason we need to help families and young people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual to be what I call normalised. It is time to live and let live. We bury our heads in the sand and risk an increase in mental health problems and suicides if we do not recognise orientation or same-sex unions. GLEN does an enormous amount of work and has evidence to support these assertions.

The Bill is a milestone and a watershed in our evolution as a nation, as a people coming to terms with our multiple identities and orientations, when we begin to legislate for the challenges facing us, take responsibility and deal with our own problems and promote tolerance and inclusivity. We should not look to export our problems, as we so often did in the past. How many gay people do we know who decided to emigrate to places such as San Francisco just to be able to live a normal life as a gay person?

There are shortcomings in the Bill. There is a glaring omission in dealing with the needs of children, a source of major concern. We have an obligation to ensure children who have parents of the same sex are treated equally in the eyes of the State. This could have come about for various reasons, be it through the use of a donor, through a previous marriage or heterosexual relationship involving one of the same-sex couple. According to CSO 2006 census figures, one third of approximately 2,000 same-sex couples have children. These children must be taken into account and provisions need to be made to ensure they are protected.

The Bill does not address the issue of adoption and guardianship, leaving the law unchanged for same-sex couples. That is a major flaw and I would like the Minister to address it. When will we see the guardianship Bill? The Ombudsman for Children, when advising us on the adoption Bill, recommended that the categories eligible to apply for adoption should be extended to include same-sex couples and that if the Bill remained unchanged, it would continue to deny certain children the possibility of enjoying a permanent and secure legal relationship with both of their parents. Change is incremental. A guardianship Bill is needed to protect the rights of children of same-sex couples.

As a member of a democratic party and a legislator, my duty is to protect the rights of all citizens, not just those of the majority or in the mainstream. For that reason, I am delighted to support the Bill and contribute in some way to making our civil society more inclusive, tolerant and stronger as a result.

I welcome the Minister and thank him for staying as long as he has throughout the day. This is an important Bill, one to which he is clearly committed. I will praise him in the first instance, but later I will outline a few problems with the Bill. He has a reputation of being something of a conservative, but I find that he is far from being a conservative in introducing the Bill. It certainly is not one that would have been dreamed up by a conservative. The way in which the Minister worded his speech showed that he was a man of compassion in his working environment before entering politics. He has recognised for a long time that the issue of equality for gay and lesbian people needed to be addressed.

To some extent, I am on the horns of a dilemma. As a republican, I truly believe in equality, that we should all be subject to the same laws. As legislators, we must frame laws in such a way that they provide for equality; we cannot wilfully frame laws that fall short of that expectation. The Minister acknowledged that the Bill does not provide for equality. That is why some in the Chamber and some in the gay and lesbian rights groups are not happy with it. The Minister stated that the Bill "demonstrates our commitment to full equality by providing an important supportive legal framework." That was a lovely way of putting it. I am not sure, just because it is not providing for equality by allowing all the same access to marriage, that this is a reason not to support it. There are many in the gay community who welcome this step, while many on both sides of the House have mentioned that they see it as a staging post, not as the end. Having gone this far and provided for drafting legislation to provide for equality to a certain level, why do we not go the whole way and do what we know in our hearts is the right thing to do? If we truly consider ourselves to be republicans, we should provide for this.

Last night I spoke to my sometimes political mentor, Deputy Mary Harney, and she said all change was incremental, that we must bring society with us. Senator McDonald mentioned that we could not move from what was awful to what was perfect in one fell swoop. That is why we need to bring society with us and provide for incremental change. That is one of the reasons I will support the Bill. It will bring us part of the way, but there are gaps in terms of the rights of children which these need to be addressed. I accept the Minister's point that he does not necessarily want to deal with them in this Bill, but they need to be addressed sooner rather than later. We tend to frame laws that are somewhat unequal. I do not think any of us can stand proudly over this. We are, however, travelling a long way down the road in providing the supporting legal framework for persons in same-sex relationships. There is currently no such protection in law. It may not get the support it got in the other House, in Cabinet and the support I imagine it will enjoy here. We cannot stop at that. That we have gone most of the way to provide for equality should not mean we forget about it and put it at the bottom of the pile.

Senator Norris's contribution was interesting. My dilemma is that we must provide for equality but, as the Minister said, we must also ensure it is permissible under the Constitution. We have a very outdated notion of what the family is and, as the Minister said, if we need to change the Constitution, that is another day's argument. The contributions today have demonstrated that we need to change the Constitution on this issue in particular. Senator Norris said that in the 1960s Mr. Declan Costello said the Constitution was open to interpretation because it did not state that marriage is between a man and a woman. It was assumed that was the case because in 1967, we would never have imagined that a family could comprise two people of the same sex. However, as we know, that is what some families comprise. We need to recognise the changed environment in which we live and the not ideal, or the very varied, circumstances into which children are born and reared. They all deserve equal treatment before the law and that must be our most important function as legislators.

The Minister said the Constitution states we are all equal before the law. We should all be equal before the law but this Bill falls a little short in terms of providing that everybody is equal before the law. The status of the family needs to be protected and this is where the Minister had a dilemma, that is, in trying to frame legislation which would allow people to be equal before the law and yet protect the status of the family. The Minister should correct me if I misunderstood what he said but I believe that is accurate.

That shows there is a major flaw in the Constitution. The rights of an individual should not be compromised because of the particular status that the family enjoys. We need desperately to do much work updating the Constitution. We would have an easier time passing equality laws if the Constitution was updated somewhat.

I wish to address points Senator Mullen made. He is a very persuasive and good debater and he made cogent arguments about his conscience clause. I heard the Minister address that very well in the Dáil last week. What I objected to slightly in Senator Mullen's contribution was that he bent over backwards trying to look for status for the conscience clause and to ensure people have their consciences protected. He is fundamentally missing the point that he is denying equality of rights. He is overlooking that this Bill seeks to provide equality and is rather more exercised about having a conscience clause rather than dealing with the fundamental issue.

I look forward to the debate on the issue of cohabiting relationships on Committee Stage. The Minister said the Bill provides for nothing other than the right to go to court. I object slightly to this because we do not need the State interfering in relationships in any shape or form. Marriage is one thing, although a four or five year cohabiting relationship is not necessarily causal. I do not see the point of going down this road. I look forward to the debate which will take place.

There is a proposal in the Bill in regard to signing an opt-out clause. If you and your partner are about to acquire rights, entitlements or the right to go to court and one tries to get one's partner to opt out of that, it is a sure sign the relationship will come to a conclusion very swiftly. I agree with the fundamental issue that this Bill takes nothing from anybody's rights but merely seeks to provide equality for people.

I wish to share time with Senator Quinn.

Those who propose the abolition of this House should take stock of the contributions made by Senators on both sides today. They were of a very high order. I wish I could keep the promise I made to myself this morning when I appealed to Senators to have regard to the civilities of the debate. When we discussed this last I said that toleration was not just permitting things of which we approve but permitting things of which we disapprove.

In that regard, I have some problems with those Senators who said they have problems of conscience. Essentially, these are not problems of conscience but problems of culture. I am not a believer but I have profound respect for religion which I believe is a product of humanity. I believe human beings created religion for their better moral regulation and without religion, we might be much poorer in Ireland, especially in Northern Ireland.

I want to be straight about this even if it brings some heat into the debate but those who talk about matters of conscience are open to the charge that they are acting like this because they feel they are under some kind of obligation to some religious creed. It is one thing if it is personal conscience but if it is coming out of some kind of ideology of religious beliefs, I would say to them that the Christian churches have a very deranged history in regard to human sexuality. That must be said straight. The founder, Jesus Christ, had a very liberal attitude to sexual morality but his disciples beginning with Paul, going on to the burning of witches and right up to the handling by the Catholic Church of child sex abuse in this country and all we know about it do not argue a very normal and sane attitude to sexuality.

Human sexuality will always be evolving. We do not know to where what we call the family unit will progress. Once contraception came in in the 1960s, the connection between procreation and sexuality was broken for all time. There is no necessary connection anymore between procreation and sexuality. Sexuality must be given its own space in life as, indeed, does the whole question of human relationships. Shakespeare said let us not to the marriage of two true minds admit impediment.

Below the surface of everyone speaking on the other side is a kind of running stream of concern about sexuality as if homosexuals and gays were not drawn to each other by their minds, their views on politics and the passion to be with each other. I fear this deranged sexual tone that lies beneath this debate because it comes out of a very deranged tradition if it is religion that is driving private conscience. In the matter of private conscience, this is res publica. Aristotle said that the public sphere is no place for political innocents — naturally, because it deals in irreconcilables. There cannot be agreement on everything in the public sphere and, therefore, we must have a mechanism to deal with the public sphere. The one we deal with is representative government.

Representative government requires that public representatives act at all times in theres publica. They cannot say they have a personal and private dimension, although if they do so, they come up against Dr. Johnson’s rule who said we are all entitled to our private conscience provided we are prepared to die for it. If they are prepared to lose their jobs in the public sector, let them declare themselves. I hope the Minister responsible, if he meets any of these characters, will take the opportunity to make another cut in the public service if any of them refuses to do his or her duty.

Let me finish by congratulating the Minister on honouring the commitment made by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, in the programme for Government in 2007. As I am a conservative who believes in Burke's definition of society as a contract between the living, the dead and those who are yet to be born, I regard this as a good day's work.

I feel the shadow of Wilde and Casement here today. They, too, belonged to that tradition, our greatest literary genius and one of our great political icons who gave his life in public service to the oppressed peoples of the world and who — because he would not have been executed for high treason but for his sexuality — died for his sexuality. I am glad to be here today in the shadow of Casement and Wilde. We should be the country leading Europe. With two such huge icons we should be the leading country in Europe in moving towards full marriage status for our gay community.

Bravo. Well said.

I thank Senator Harris for sharing time. I grew up in an Ireland very different from the Ireland of today. In my youth there was no divorce, or so we thought. It was hidden. In my youth there was no child born out of wedlock, or so we thought, because that was hidden. In my youth there was no suicide, or so we thought, because that too was hidden. In my youth there was no homosexuality, or so we thought, because that was hidden. There was no loneliness, or so we thought. I was elected to the Seanad 17 years ago. Things had changed. We found ourselves passing laws on those very items of divorce, contraceptives and suicide. As we passed those laws I hope we relieved some of that loneliness. Today, we hope to enact legislation to remove some of the loneliness of those who have been deprived of the ability to have a civil partnership, and that is another very welcome step.

However, I believe the Bill can be improved and I hope it will be on Committee Stage. The Constitution allows us to pass laws that discriminate between different sectors of our citizens. For instance, we can give different benefits to people in the west from those given to people in the east. We can give different pensions to the blind from those we give to the deaf. In only one area does the Constitution debar us from discrimination. Article 44 forbids discrimination on the grounds of religion. Even in Article 44, while the word "discriminate" is used in the English text, the Irish version uses the words "idirdhealú a dhéanamh idir", which means to differentiate between but not discriminate against. However, the Bill discriminates against couples who live together but not as sexual partners. They could be brothers, sisters, relatives or a carer and patient. The benefits of civil partnership are not allowed unless the two people are homosexual. This Bill should not do that. It should be amended to ensure it overcomes that problem.

The other point that needs attention is those whose religious beliefs restrain them from being a participant in a homosexual civil partnership ceremony. We have talked about this a lot today. By refusing to be a participant, they are open to criminal proceedings. I believe this is wrong. The penalty is not simply a fine or civil proceedings but criminal proceedings. That is wrong and should be corrected. I support the Bill but only if we can solve those problems.

Senator Fiona O'Malley referred to the Minister's compassion. He should show that compassion to those who feel they are unfairly dealt with in this legislation. The Minister can do that in the next few hours and I urge him to do so.

I have listened to most of the debate today and will comment on some of the issues raised very passionately on both sides of the House. I fully accept that the Minister has had an exceptionally difficult job to do. He wishes to extend civil rights to a group of people who have been denied those civil rights in the past, which is not to our credit. He has also endeavoured to ensure the Bill does not conflict with Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Constitution. It remains to be seen whether he has achieved that. Senator Feargal Quinn has raised a point in that regard which may get a further airing in some other forum.

When I relinquished the Fianna Fáil Whip this morning, I did so to have freedom of speech. I will talk about freedom of conscience in a moment. Since the publication of the Bill, there has been very little public debate. That disappoints me. I have stated this on the Order of Business and I make that point again.

While Senator David Norris made a powerful contribution, and I would not expect anything less from him, he invoked my name out of context.

I did not and I withdraw not one word single word.

I will also deal with that in a moment. The record needs to be correct on all these issues. I must also make it clear that my expressing views that may be contrary to Government policy has nothing to do with the leadership of Fianna Fáil. I admire Deputy Brian Cowen. He has shown exceptional strength of character. He has demonstrated integrity and patriotic leadership.

It is important to put all these points on the record because I find much confusion in a debate of this kind. Members of this House should be allowed to express their views without fear or favour. Some Senators who support this legislation have been to the fore in that regard, and long may that continue.

Anyone who takes the time to study the record of the House will find a comprehensive statement by me regarding same-sex union and civil partnership. I felt it was important to lay out my stall on that occasion when there was an opportunity for each Member of the House to put his or her views on the record before the heat of battle. I did that. I believe Senator Norris complimented me at the time. I mention that occasion because I want to get thequestion of my attitude to same-sex unions out of the way and deal with specific issues in this regard.

In so far as my name was invoked, I ask Senator Norris to check the record. I said that since I came into the House I have upheld the rights of prisoners of conscience in Ireland and abroad. I never missed an opportunity to do that wherever I felt it was necessary. I followed that by saying it was possible, in the future, that I would have to speak for Irish prisoners of conscience who were imprisoned on foot of legislation in which I had acquiesced. There is a penalty clause for anyone who wishes to exercise his or her conscience. The penalty is six months in prison. I do not think that is necessary or right. It does not do anything for the Bill and I am surprised that even those who fully favour the extension of the Bill would want to see that happening in this country.

I took grave exception to the fact that when we were endeavouring to create a debate so that people would know precisely what is in the legislation, that debate was being stifled. For example, when the Catholic bishops issued a statement, they were told they should not interfere.

These are the same bishops whom we requested to enter the debate on the Lisbon treaty referendum to ensure its passage. They did precisely that. It is all right in one case but not in other cases. We should also bear in mind that these bishops have a mandate because they represent the majority of people who happen to profess the Catholic faith on this island.

It is not just the Catholic bishops. The Protestant bishops have also put forward very balanced and reasoned amendments but the lid was put on that in exactly the same way and no opportunity was given for teasing out what they were putting forward at that time.

We have had some sermons and lectures today on conscience. Generally, it was on the conscience of other people we were getting the lectures whereas conscience is a very personal thing. It is also what distinguishes us as human beings. The State uses conscience in the judicial system. In a court of law one is asked to take an oath based on one's conscience. In that case, we regard conscience as very important as a cornerstone of the judicial system but, when someone like myself wants to express a view regarding my personal conscience, then to some extent the argument is being focused on the individual rather than on the legislation which we are debating here.

I still hope the Minister would find it possible to exclude church property in this legislation. It is unnecessary and should not be done. We have recognised the ethos of churches in other legislation and there is no reason we could not have done so in this case. I agree with Senator Feargal Quinn that there are still opportunities in the next few hours for the Minister to consider some of the issues we are putting forward.

I have heard some debate on the rights of children. It is a very big debate and I have no doubt it will take a lot of time, but I will say this much here. There is an element in the Bill, if I read it correctly, which suggests that children who come forward from another relationship into a same-sex union can have their inheritance rights diminished. I would have thought an amendment which we put forward whereby, in the case of one of the two partners passing on, the estate that is left should be divided equally between the remaining partner and whatever number of children were involved, would have been teased out and could have been dealt with.

There is a firm argument regarding elderly siblings living together. I heard two eminent people, one on television recently and another person speaking politically, suggest that this is for another day. My point would have been that if proper debate had taken place, it would not have been for another day; it would have been precisely for this day because they too are entitled to consideration. It weakens the whole premise of equality by not allowing consideration of this particular case. Nobody can say it is not a loving relationship, although it may not be based on a sexual relationship. We should revisit the issue at this time.

I have listened to other speakers and I know they would have liked to have developed their points much further. It is a pity that our time today is so limited. However, with regard to conscience, I ask Members not to in any way ridicule or underestimate it. Incidentally, I do not believe that anybody has a monopoly on conscience or on righteousness — quite the opposite. We should all be very careful not to take the high moral ground in that regard. Having said that, I would still suggest we might have got the best legislation if everybody's point of view could be made without it being personalised.

I will finish on Senator Norris's reference to me. I made it quite clear that I was referring to a prisoner of conscience when I referred to the penal law. That is precisely what happened. I did not use it in the context of the legislation itself.

I wish the Minister well. I know he is coming at this with goodwill and he is endeavouring to harmonise all the views on this island. I hope from now on, when dealing with the amendments, there will be no personalising of the debate and that, whatever way we finish on this Bill, we can still end up as good friends and good colleagues, because that is the only decent way for any legislator to act in this House.

On a point of clarification, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, I did not wish to interrupt Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú.

Will he accept he is incorrect when he refers to the Protestant church, by which I think he means the Anglican church, putting forward amendments? I am a practising, regular member of that church. They did not do so. I am afraid he has been misinformed and I respectfully ask him to withdraw that comment.

The fact the Senator was not addressing the Chair means that what he said is probably not being recorded. What he offered is not in the protocol.

I beg your pardon, I said "Leas-Chathaoirligh" quite audibly. I believe that is to speak through the Chair.

What did the Senator then go on to say?

I said "On a point of clarification".

There is no such thing as a point of clarification.

The Acting Chairman will find the recording machine differs with him.

Debate adjourned.