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

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

I welcome the opportunity to speak. I want to make some general points on the Bill but I also want to comment on some of the points that have been made in regard to conscience and a free vote, which I will come to later. I will begin by commending the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, for the manner in which he has dealt with this legislation. This Bill must be acknowledged as a major step on a journey from intolerance to equality. It is major step towards removing the suffering of a highly significant number of men and women within the Irish population. As I said this morning on the Order of Business, when the legislation was passed in the Dáil, there were many people around Leinster House and I met a young man who, unprompted, said to me "This legislation will change my life." He meant every word of that. Clearly, this legislation will impact on the quality of people's lives in Ireland.

The Bill represents a further step in the incorporation of human rights thinking into domestic law by providing more equitable treatment of persons of different sexual orientations. It will undermine further the prejudice against gay and lesbian citizens. This Bill is by no means perfect and does not address all the issues affecting gay couples, which I regret. I hope the promised guardianship legislation will deal with some of the issues which I know will be addressed during the course of Committee Stage of this legislation.

I will recap briefly the experience both in Ireland and internationally for gay people. Secrecy and suffering is what, for generations, was offered to gay people. Many within the heterosexual majority were hardly aware of the issue, except from occasional newspaper reports cast in such coded words that readers were unclear as to why these men were going to prison. We still hear reports internationally about this happening and we have a moral obligation to continue to speak out against this, as we have done in this House recently.

The steps which lead us to this historic point are easily forgotten but they should not be. These steps were taken by individuals of courage, such as our own colleague in this House and the many members of the campaigning organisations who for so long and until relatively recently were isolated, undermined and got very little support. I am thankful that has changed. It was extraordinary to hear Senator Norris speaking about the number of people he knows who have been murdered because of their sexual orientation.

I was pleased to be in the Dáil at a time when a woman and Fianna Fáil Minister, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, led the charge against the criminalisation of homosexuality. There is a very well known story about how two mothers of young gay men visited her, speaking with pride about their sons as any mothers would. These were not any mothers but had listened to their sons telling them about discovering they were different. They did not choose to be different and did not want to be different but it was just the way they were. It was as simple and challenging as that.

As President McAleese recently remarked, homosexuality is a discovery, not a decision, and for many it is a discovery made against a backdrop where within their immediate circle of family and friends, as well as the wider society, they have long encountered anti-gay attitudes which do little to help them deal openly and healthily with their own sexuality.

It took courage for those two young men to out themselves to their mothers and it took even more courage for the mothers to come to an understanding of what they had been told and to speak to a Minister for Justice about changing a law that made criminals out of two young men. As a woman and mother, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn identified with and sympathised with these people but the task, from a legislative perspective, was not about sympathy. Our task was not to approve what was then called a lifestyle but to legislate for the public good. We had to assess whether the law as it stood served that end. It clearly did not have a positive outcome for society and merely terrorised and criminalised people, and that led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in this country.

It must be said that society did not fall apart and individuals who believed homosexuality was wrong and sinful did not change their beliefs. They were and are entitled to those beliefs, and it is worth stating that for some of my colleagues those beliefs amount to convictions essential to the holder's sense of self. In the past there has sometimes been an unwillingness to fully understand how fundamental are the convictions on the opposing side. There has been a tendency to caricature and stereotype. It is a measure of how far we have come as a society that this has not happened, for the most part, during the debate on this civil partnership Bill. Deep convictions have been expressed without drawing down the crude condemnatory caricatures seen so much in the past.

I was struck recently when thinking about this legislation about some of the newspaper reports on the death of US Senator Robert Byrd, particularly how over a lifetime his attitudes towards race changed. As he looked, listened and debated, his views changed radically from being someone who was racially discriminatory to someone with a greater understanding of inequality. Many of us have been on journeys with regard to equality and it is good to see the kind of change he spoke about so much of towards the end of his life.

Senators Labhrás Ó Murchú and Harris referred to the quality of the debate in this House, which is important. As a society we must be able to hold, tolerate and manage quite different viewpoints. This legislation addresses the totality of two individuals, their mutual commitment and their rights and place in society. It protects two men or women who have chosen to commit their lives to each other. The legal validation implicit in the Bill is of that commitment and mutual support on the part of individuals who have established a stable relationship.

Some say civil partnership is a threat to marriage. I simply ask how people can logically arrive at that conclusion. Those who opt for civil partnership when it becomes law are no threat to marriage and it will complement marriage. Many couples cohabit rather than marry but that is not because of a civil partnership Bill but wider societal issues which we can all address in different ways. To discriminate against couples who wish to state in legal terms how much they value their relationship would not support marriage or persuade one of those cohabiting couples to walk up the aisle together. Those who avail of civil partnership are those who know the importance of stability in society and wish, for the most part, to support that stability.

There is an issue with the language used around this Bill. The reality is that discrimination still exists and we have heard the insults still hurled around the playgrounds in this country. One of the most frequently used insults in the playground is the accusation that another child is gay. This does not happen by accident and is based on a deep fear that finds violent expression in sometimes lethal attacks on gay people. Sometimes that leads to the majority using certain language around the Bill we are discussing today. When we use that language in speaking about tolerance and compassion, we are using the language of the dominant group. It is not that appropriate in terms of the debate we are having.

The phrase "free vote" in some way seems to imply that to vote as a political party on the issue is a diminution of freedom. That is to ignore the deep level of discussion, argument, advocacy, point and counterpoint which has certainly happened in Fine Gael and which will have happened in most political parties. It is a deeply democratic process that should be valued. To devalue the process and abandon it by removing the Whip, for example, is to separate it from a profoundly democratic process.

At this stage, I pay tribute to former Senator Sheila Terry for the work she did on the issue.

She worked on the issue and presented a paper for Fine Gael in 2004. It has been remarked that the capacity to accept two mutually opposed viewpoints is the mark of genius but it is also the mark of a civilised and evolved society. On conscience, I make the point that conscience is about owning a code of contact and abiding by it. It is not about imposing one's individual code on others or using one's belief to limit the civil rights of others. It is not about giving more rights to people we approve of and fewer to those whose code does not match ours.

As legislators we must always create laws that free people to become the best citizens they can with the most to offer. This civil partnership Bill is precisely such a law.

I wish to share time with Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill, by agreement. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. This is truly landmark legislation in an Irish context. It reflects strongly that Fianna Fáil is delivering its promises from the 2007 election manifesto and programme for Government. This issue is very important for same-sex couples.

I listened intently to Senators Labhrás Ó Murchú, John Hanafin, Jim Walsh and Rónán Mullen. I could empathise with them in some of the points they made on certain matters. Members of the House have a tendency not to tackle one another's arguments head on. However, that is what I hope to do in respect of this Bill.

All things being equal, a loving mother and a loving father constitute the ideal unit in rearing children. This unit should be promoted and encouraged, but it is not always possible to have such a unit in place, nor is it always the best arrangement in certain circumstances. The argument made by the four Senators to whom I referred and others misses the point entirely in respect of this legislation. There is no doubt but that we need to act in the nation's interests.

I am a republican and a proud Irishman. Passing this legislation will make Ireland more egalitarian and give rise to greater freedom and fairness within society, particularly for those who are gay. If one is gay, so what? It does not make any difference to me one way or another. What is important is whether someone is honourable, caring or loving. As many distinguished and famous people have stated, we should consider a person's character rather than who he or she is, the colour of his or her skin or his or her sexuality. To me, as an Irishman, someone's sexuality is irrelevant; there should be no legal impediments placed in the way of couples, be they heterosexual or homosexual. The legislation brings forward a new structure in respect of succession, financial and pension rights. That is what is required.

As the youngest Member of the Oireachtas, I have a responsibility to articulate my views and appreciate the opportunity to do so. I also have a responsibility to echo the opinions of other young people, many of whom have contacted me about this matter. As previous speakers stated, one cannot help with whom one falls in love. In addition, one does not have a choice when it comes to the identity of the person who is going to make one go weak at the knees. In many instances we wish that those who do make us go weak at the knees did not have such power over us.

I am concerned that certain Senators have failed to tackle the issues to which the legislation actually relates. Those who have spoken against the Bill are three or four of the most articulate Members of the House. However, I disagree with them in the stance they have adopted. I wish to analyse some of the arguments they made and indicate why I disagree with them, why I will be voting in favour of the Bill and why I encourage all other Members to do so.

I accept that there are siblings who have lived together all their lives and whose arrangements are not addressed in the Bill. However, that is a poor and weak reason for opposing the legislation. Senator Mullen has stated the Bill will not deliver true equality. I wish to examine this point. The Senator has indicated that we are entering a phase in which just because one has a particular Christian or other religious point of view, one's arguments will be dismissed out of hand. I disagree with him in that regard for the same reasons that I disagree with the inclusion of a conscience clause. One might think it reasonable to suggest such a clause should be inserted to cater for those who are uncomfortable about this matter. However, if such a clause were universal, it would lead to a horrendous state of affairs, whereby all civil and public servants could withdraw their services simply on the basis of their conscience. Where does one draw the line when it comes to one's conscience? I have not been contacted by any registrar who has a conscientious objection to the legislation. However, I acknowledge that this alone is not a reason to oppose the Bill. If one opposes it on the basis of one's conscience, one is missing its central thrust which is, as the Minister has indicated on numerous occasions, that it empowers people and enhances their rights. In many respects, I wish the Bill went further.

We need to examine how the country has developed during the past then or 20 years. My father has often informed me that 20 years ago this country was inward looking and backward. If one watches television programmes such as "Reeling in the Years", one can witness the transformation that has occurred in Irish society in the past ten or 15 years. This is a country of which we should all be proud. If we do not pass the Bill, however, we will be less proud to be citizens. As a Member of Seanad Éireann, I am proud that the House will pass it tomorrow. There is an urgent need for this legislation.

I have been contacted by people who are in favour of the Bill and others who are opposed to it. The individuals to whom I refer put many arguments to me. As a relatively new Member of the House, I am of the view that we have a responsibility to do what is right. Above all, this legislation is right for the country and all of its citizens, not merely those who are homosexual. While I am a member of the largest grouping in the House, I accept that the members of the other groups are as passionate as I am in expressing their opinions. I welcome the Bill and hope it will be passed. I am delighted that it is being guided through the Houses by a fellow Louthman.

I thank Senator Carroll for sharing time. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Gay and lesbian citizens of the State deserve opportunities that are equal to those enjoyed by all other citizens. I know many gay and lesbian people whom I am happy to call my friends.

The Bill provides significant rights for civil partners. This raises complex legal issues in the context of the special protection the Constitution affords to marriage and in respect of the equality rights protected under Article 41. This matter was referred to by many previous speakers. The Bill will, by extension, also make provision for unmarried opposite-sex couples and unregistered same-sex couples by way of establishing a redress scheme to give protection to financially dependent persons at the end of long-term, cohabiting relationships.

Given the time constraints, I wish to focus on one or two issues. I received a large number of representations on the legislation, almost all of which emanated from persons who live in the constituency in which I reside, Donegal South-West. The vast majority refer to serious concerns about certain aspects of the Bill. It is important to highlight a number of these concerns, particularly as some relate specifically to Part 15 of the Bill which deals with cohabitation. By extension, some of these concerns are also linked with the civil partnership arrangements contained in the Bill.

I have been informed that any claim for redress, that is, a claim against a former cohabitant who is still living, or a claim for provision in the case of a former or now deceased cohabitant can only be satisfied from the part of the respondent cohabitant's assets or estate that he or she had intended to be used to provide for his or her children or that he or she had intended to leave to his or her children. In that context, I am concerned about the rights of children under the age of 18 years. While the Bill does not specifically state this, section 173(5) provides that, "The court shall not make an order referred to in this section in favour of a qualified cohabitant that would affect any right of any person to whom the other cohabitant is or was married". On the other hand, section 194(11) provides that a claim for provision from a deceased cohabitant's estate must be met from the net estate. The section goes on to define "net estate" as:

(a) other liabilities of the estate having priority over the rights referred to in paragraphs(b) and (c),

(b) any rights, under the Succession Act 1965, of any surviving spouse of the person, and

(c) any rights, under the Succession Act 1965, of any surviving civil partner of the person.

It appears, therefore, that under the Bill — perhaps the Minister will clarify the position — the rights and shares of a surviving spouse or registered civil partner will be ring-fenced against any claim by a surviving cohabitant. In summary, once the debts of the deceased or the estate have been satisfied and provision made in respect of the entitlements of the spouse or civil partner, any responsible parent would wish for the remainder of his or her estate to be left, more or less in its entirety, to his or her child or children.

However, under the Bill it appears the children of the respondent cohabitant, whether born of an earlier or subsequent marriage or born out of wedlock, are to be seriously disadvantaged by the granting of either redress or provision in favour of a surviving cohabitant. My view, which has also been expressed by my constituents, is that this will leave the entitlements of children from the estate of a parent in a very vulnerable position. I am concerned that the inheritance rights of children in certain circumstances are being eroded in this Bill. That appears to be the case. I am open to clarification from the Minister. I am raising the concerns that have been expressed by many parents in my constituency. Another example is section 194——

Gabh mo leithscéal. When Senator Carroll said he wished to share time with Senator Ó Domhnaill, I think he was under the misapprehension that he and Senator Ó Domhnaill had 15 minutes in total.

That is what we were led to believe.

However, they have just ten minutes in total. Senator Ó Domhnaill has now gone over the allotted time of ten minutes in this slot. I will give him some latitude. I ask him to keep in mind that other Senators are waiting to speak.

I will do so, as far as possible.

Perhaps he can conclude in the next minute or two. I am very sorry about this.

I will sum up. I thought we had 15 minutes, rather than ten minutes. I would like to refer to other sections of the Bill. Section 194(4)(d) provides that when making an order for redress, the court must have regard to “the rights and entitlements of any dependent child or of any child of a previous relationship of either cohabitant”. I ask the Minister to clarify if the rights and entitlements of a child of the current relationship will be protected under this section. In the relevant Part of the Bill “dependent child” is defined as “any child of whom both the cohabitants are the parents” but may only be relevant to a previous circumstance. Any child of the current relationship is not referred to in the Bill. I am open to clarification from the Minister in this regard. I have expressed a number of concerns with regard to children. They relate more to the redress provision elements of the Bill. During his Second Stage speech, the Minister referred to the Law Reform Commission’s consultative document on certain aspects of this matter. Perhaps we can get further clarification in that regard.

In general, I welcome the debate we are having in the House. It is important for the Seanad to embrace such discussions and to give all Senators a chance for their views to be expressed and heard. I welcome the opportunity to raise in this forum some of the concerns that have been outlined to me. Like people in my constituency, I have concerns about the protection of the interests of the child in the event of redress or any future provision. I will give a brief example before I wrap up. I will suggest the case of a married couple who are in a loving relationship and have two dependent children but, by the grace of God, happen to be killed in a car accident. Let us assume that the father, having cohabited with someone ten years previously, had been making a periodical payment of €1,000 or €500 to his former cohabitant, perhaps at Christmas. I would like to know whether this Bill provides that his former cohabitant will have an opportunity to make a claim from his estate ahead of his two children. The Bill is not clear in this regard. I feel it is important to highlight this matter, which has been raised with me, in the House. I appreciate the latitude I was given by the Acting Chairman to extend my contribution beyond the time available when other Members were waiting to speak.

I thank the Senator for his understanding.

I would like to share time with Senator Ross.

I welcome the Minister. As a fellow member of the class of 1987, I am very proud of him today as he introduces this legislation.

I thank the Senator.

I would like to make a passing comment on the Bill before we deal with it in detail on Committee Stage. I listened to the end of the debate in the other House. I believe in plain English. Section 172 of the Bill has to be adjusted. The Bill provides that civil partnership is not available to people "within the prohibited degrees of relationship". Section 172 states that "2 adults are within a prohibited degree of relationship if .... they would be prohibited from marrying each other in the State". That includes people of the same gender. I think that has to be changed. I think it will be challenged and there will be a problem with it. That is for down the road. We will deal with such matters on Committee Stage.

I wish to speak about the issue of conscience. Those of us who deal with national school teachers who teach religious knowledge in schools have come across the issue day in, day out for the last 30 years. It might come as a surprise to the people of Ireland to learn that teachers all over Ireland teach religion every day even though they do not believe a word of it. I do not refer to all of them, but to some of them. They just get on with it. We should not get carried away about what can be done, or what does not need to be done. I will spell that out at a later stage. The Minister is absolutely right in this regard.

This is a debate about society. In society's wild and savage stage, people fought each other because they looked different or acted differently. At the football matches of today, supporters spit hate at each other. They share the same space at the football pitch but, like oil and water, they will never mix. As society moves on, difference is accommodated and respected. Perhaps there is parity of esteem and, at some stage, equality. During all of those stages, the real test is how society melds and blends. A true society or community should be like a precious stone, with many different facets, directions and reflections. Over many generations and centuries, it should grow and become more precious. At the end of that process of maturation, we should have a true society. Today's debate is part of that process.

We are talking about the gay culture of Ireland. It may be described as a sub-culture — I hate that phrase — in the sense that gay people constitute a group within a group. The gay people of Ireland are being brought into society. That is really what today is about. I have had many arguments about the education of mutual understanding, with the objective of tolerance, in Northern Ireland. That is never enough. Tolerance is no longer an acceptable objective in society. It is not about multiculturalism and getting people to share the same space. It is not about having a Muslim school, a gay school, a Catholic school or a French school. It is about how people who are different engage with each other. The benchmark of a successful society is not the space it gives to its different parts — it is the quality of the engagement and participation of all the different groups. That is the measure. There is no other measure. When we accept that, we will be able to see where we are going in today's discussion.

Words are important. However, I suggest that significant confusion between words like liberalism, progressivism, pluralism, interculturalism and multiculturalism has been a feature of this debate. Liberalism, in its true meaning, provides for an okay measure of the extent to which society is open, tolerant and free. Any attempt to create a culture in which everyone supports, adopts and buys into the same liberal agenda is anathema to, and the antithesis of, liberalism. We should rejoice in difference as an adornment of our society. It lifts and enriches rather than threatens our society. It is not something with which we have to cope reluctantly. We should not try to rein in those who are different. We should learn from difference, which enriches us on a daily basis. It is a welcome aspect of society. I ask people to think through these issues in a different way.

Similarly, people who mock and sneer at conservative Catholicism are as objectionable to me as those who do the reverse. It is anathema to me. People have to open and respect each other's different points of view. By engaging in argument with those who are different, across the floor of this House and elsewhere, we can bring about the creative tension that leads to progress in society. As we find our way forward, we can blend, design and create a better society. That is what we are about today. We are not just dealing with the smaller aspects of this individual Bill — we are also making a major move forward as we try to create a better society. I am just getting into my stride.

That is why I am reluctant to interrupt the Senator.

I will hand over to my colleague, Senator Ross, by saying there is much to be done in society. This is an important step forward. I agree with Senator O'Malley, who said earlier that all change management is gradual and incremental. That is why I suggest that people who have problems with the Bill, but generally approve of it, should see it as a stage in our development and should support it.

I endorse what Senator O'Toole has said. I do not know whether this legislation is based on pluralism, tolerance or human rights, but it seems to me that it represents eminent good sense. All it does is recognise something that should have happened a very long time ago, namely, the granting of straightforward human rights for people who deserve to be treated exactly as everyone else is treated. Sometimes I look at this Bill and wonder what all the fuss is about. This should have happened ages ago. I had lunch today with a group of young people who, when I told them what we were discussing today, thought we had horns. They thought this had happened ages ago and was no longer an issue. It should have happened 20 or 30 years ago.

I have been in this House for a very long time and know how long it has taken for the gay community to be recognised. I heard Senator Norris describing very eloquently how he was a criminal and a Senator at the same time. That was an appalling and unforgiveable situation. I further state that this Bill, not all of which he entirely approves, is a great monument to the leadership he gave in this area. That should be recognised by all Members of this House because for many years the treatment of the gay community was indefensible. Those people were kept in that situation by politicians who were reluctant to take measures that were essential and made pure common sense. Today's Bill is a recognition, not only of what Senator Norris has done, but of the fact that political parties, some perhaps reluctantly, have come of age. They have come to recognise this is basic, common-sense human rights. That is all we are doing here.

To those who feel the Bill does not go far enough I say it is a great deal better than it was yesterday. When this Bill is signed in two days' time, the gay community and other people will be a great deal better off than they were 48 hours before. We should recognise that as a tribute. I recognise and salute Fianna Fáil for taking this on, with great difficulties. I salute the Green Party which probably gave the leadership in Government on this.

How does the Senator know that?

I do not know it. I apologise. I suspect it. That should be recognised too because it is important.

There is a measure in the Bill to which we will come to and about which I feel uneasy. I believe those who have broken ranks in Fianna Fáil will table an amendment in its regard. I cannot understand why it is necessary to criminalise people such as registrars, etc. who say they will not do certain jobs in this situation. I do not believe in the conscience clause, by the way, although I thought long and hard about it. However, if the conscience of these people tells them that they cannot take such an action, that is fair enough. If they do not do what is required of them in their jobs they are dismissed, they resign or are deemed to have resigned. However, the idea of locking them up for six months, or whatever, is totally wrong and unfair. This may apply in other areas of the public service, as I believe it does, but it should not do so. I plead with the Minister to accept an amendment whereby such people are deemed to have been dismissed because of behaving in this way, or are otherwise dismissed by the head of their department. To say they should go to jail for something in which they believe, however wrongly, is totally wrong.

This is a very great day. It is a good day for the House. It is Ireland coming of age and, without being patronising, it is the Fianna Fáil Party coming of age. We should salute Senator Norris, in particular, for bringing us this far if not quite as far as he would like us to go.

The Minister is welcome. I commend him on the even-handed way in which he steered this legislation to the point it is at today. I have heard him speak about it at a number of events and his advocacy and even-handedness on an issue that might have got away from us, causing much unease and a great deal of not very useful debate, have managed to confine and frame it in terms of the civil rights it will confer on relationships that until now have not been recognised properly.

People have described this as a landmark. I like to think of it, also, as a stepping stone. I and my party see it as an important moment in a journey towards ultimate equal status in terms of marriage for gay people. We are not there today but we are talking about civil partnership. Undoubtedly, this is a significant day.

Gay love is not tainted love. I believe there is a sub-text for those who oppose this legislation when they suggest it is a tainted love. Senator Mullen referred to classic Catholic teaching on sexuality. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition there is a truly unhealthy interpretation of sexuality which has not served the church well. It did not serve me well in my education. My education, which I value in many ways, was on one level an attempt at social control when it came to the area of sexuality. I resent that and carry that resentment to this day although I left school a long time ago. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Adam and Eve's first recognition of original sin was to cover their nakedness. It was, so to speak, the marker of original sin that sexuality was something of which to be ashamed. Down the centuries, that has characterised the Judaeo-Christian attitude to sexuality. The great theologian, Hans Küng, has discussed this in regard to the virgin birth which, he states, serves a useful symbolic purpose but, biologically, is simply not possible. That is a very controversial belief for an eminent Catholic theologian to state. I hope I do not misquote him but I understand very well what he means. He was attempting to break away from the traditional notion to say that just because something has its origins in a sexual act that does not mean it is due any less reverence or respect. The sub-text of that particular Catholic belief is that it is necessary to separate the Christ child from the act of sexuality.

I refer to the classic Catholic teaching on sexuality. Senator Mullen weaves an impressive web of words around all of this but I believe he is fundamentally wrong. Church teaching on homosexuality is fundamentally wrong in that it teaches that the call to the homosexual person is to live a chaste life and, by the virtues of self-mastery, prayer and sacramental grace, homosexuals will gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection. That is fundamentally incorrect and must be set aside when we speak about the rights of gay people in civil law. That is what the Bill does. I would hate to see any Senator, in his or her contribution, drag the State into people's bedrooms. At some level that is what has been attempted in the House today. I am glad we are resisting it and that the Bill enjoyed cross-party support in the other House. I hope it will enjoy overwhelming support in this one.

Coming to this somewhat late in the day, I have been impressed by the background research and consideration, going back to the Colley options paper through to the Law Reform Commission's report on cohabitees which recommended changes in areas such as succession, pensions and so on. There was the all-party Oireachtas committee which reported in 2006 on the need for legislative provision for same-sex couples. There was major research by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties in 2006 which recommended legislative reform designed to ensure legal recognition of, and enhanced State support for, various types of interpersonal relationships. The Equality Authority's report on partnership rights of same-sex couples, which dates back to 2001, highlighted the need for legislative action in this area. Most importantly, the gradual coming around of public opinion on the matter demands of us that we work on bringing full recognition to same sex couples in their relationships.

The Bills digest summarises some of the findings of the Lansdowne Market Research of 2008, which is pretty recent. Some 61% of people felt that denying same sex couples marriage was a form of discrimination, 62% said that they would vote "Yes" in a referendum to extend, not civil partnership, but civil marriage to same-sex couples if held tomorrow.

There is a new dispensation around this issue. Most Members have spoken about the new Ireland, the new tolerance and I agree that tolerance is not the aspiration towards which we should be moving, it is how we relate to each other, not simply how we stand by from each other and tolerate each other. We need something far more than that.

Allowing for that, to welcome this new Ireland, our new capacity to welcome all and our new liberalism and then not to legislate for it is disingenuous in the extreme. We must legislate for the new set of opinions based on the body of research during the past ten years that had led us to the point that we are at today. I wholeheartedly welcome the point we are at today and I view it as a stepping stone towards further progress in the future, which I hope will come to pass.

I recognise that change is incremental. Incremental change is probably more sustainable in the long run than revolutionary change. I am happy that we have reached this point today while hoping that tomorrow will be the start of the next phase, as we move towards full and equal status in the area of marriage.

In regard to some of the other peripheral issues — I see them as that — around cohabitees who are in non-sexual relationships, there is an element of hard cases making bad law to bringing this issue into the legislation. It can be dealt with in other ways. I refuse to be deflected by it in my consideration of what this Bill is trying to achieve today. I welcome this important day in Irish legislation.

I dtús báire, cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Ba mhaith liom comhgairdeas agus buíochas a ghabháil leis as ucht an Bhille seo a thabhairt isteach.

This is an important evening and I very much welcome this legislation and commend the Minister and the Green Party on bringing it to the House and managing its safe passage through both Houses of the Oireachtas.

Today is just a new dawn for modern Ireland. Our nation will now at least and at last cherish all of our citizens equally.

Today's Bill heralds that what we need is a new republic in Ireland. As Deputy Charles Flanagan said in the Dáil, it is a tangible testament to how far we have travelled as a society.

We need to pay tribute to many people who have campaigned tirelessly and indefatigably for this recognition and the safeguarding of civil rights, namely:the Minister and members of the Government; the former Senator, Sheila Terry, for her work with Fine Gael in bringing forward its party proposals on this area in 2004; Senator Norris who has been a lone crusader on this issue for many years; the men and women of GLEN for their trojan work, bravery and courage; and the many thousands of gay men and women in this country who have brought us to this day.

To paraphrase Kieran Rose of GLEN, this is a day of celebration and achievement and we should celebrate. This Bill is not about strangers, it is about people, it is about all of us in this House, it is about our brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, our grandchildren, it is about friends, it is about people we know.

As we debate this Bill here, this is a day we can be proud to say we are Irish.

Our sexuality is a gift given to us at birth by God. It is not a choice we make, it is given to us. It is about time we accepted that. This Bill is not an attack on the church, on the institution of the church or on the sacrament of marriage. It is a Bill not about sexuality but about rights, equality and people. It is incumbent on each of us as Members of the Oireachtas to legislate for all of our citizens. Civil rights are based on personal freedoms, freedoms to which we are born and to which we all have a birthright.

The issue of conscientious objectors to the enactment of this Bill has been raised and it must be dealt with maturely. I have a conscience and I am acting on my conscience. I will vote for this Bill and support the Minister in this case.

Intolerance of one section of our society, for whatever reason, in a fair and free nation must always be intolerable to each one of us as legislators. This country in our awful history has seen our citizens, or subjects as they were then, disenfranchised because of their religion. If our history of occupation has thought us anything, it is that when a state seeks to disenfranchise a group of its people, that state fails its people, the very people it seeks to govern and protect. It is our duty to protect and govern all of our citizens.

Discrimination against anybody covered on the nine grounds of equality must be and should be anathema to any modern government. There can be no excuse or opt out clause. As Éamon de Valera said, we are either all free or we are not free at all. Some people have suggested the liberal agenda has come too far, but I suggest that gay and cohabiting couples have lived far too long under the strain and pressure of no legal recognition and no legal protection.

State discrimination against these groups in society has gone on for far too long and it is time it was addressed and I believe this Bill will do that. Even though the Bill is not perfect, it is a start and represents a great progression in this area.

I thought it ironic when I heard that some of the contributors not only in this House but in the media, descendants of our disenfranchised people, would seek to disenfranchise another sector of their own people. We could never in this modern State contemplate an objection to the union of two people from diverse religious backgrounds or racial backgrounds, equally we should never contemplate or tolerate any objection to the union of two people in a loving relationship from a same-sex background.

Equality for all embodies the true spirit of republicanism, as handed down to us from the ideals of Wolfe Tone.

Tonight the Minister and many other politicians have given us a great choice. Is the State, if the Minister was to accept some of the amendments that have been put before us, to further perpetrate a stigma, bias or prejudice or will we collectively, as citizens together, take up the gauntlet and proudly enter the 21st century, realising the ideals of those proposed at the start of the 20th century? Will we as politicians be mature, and putting aside the Civil War divide, finally realise the lofty ideals of the Republic, proclaimed on the steps of the GPO, that we cherish all of our children equally.

Tonight we will remove the ignominious stigma of being gay to one of acceptance. We remove from gay people the legal barriers regarding property, inheritance rights, social welfare, succession, maintenance, pensions and tax, and the same applies to cohabiting couples. It is a day of which we can be proud, a day that we can say we are Irish, we are one and we have a common purpose.

Equally, there must be a separation of church and State in the modern Republic. While all the time cherishing our private spirituality, we must cherish the principles of equality legislatively. As a practising Catholic, I respect the rights of the church to its teachings. I disagree with it teachings on homosexuality and on sexuality in general but I believe in the right of the church to promulgate its teachings. I understand tolerance. I respect the rights of the bishops to use the magisterium to preach. I agree with them but I accept the right to have a view.

In a modern republic we must be tolerant of one another in a society where we are all equal — men, women, gay or straight, black or white, it does not matter, we are equal. In a modern republic, I also believe that the equalitarian ideals of a republic must be to the fore and I fully endorse the separation of church and state. The state should not interfere in the spiritual matters of a church, nor can the state be led or influenced by the spiritual stance of a church. We are a pluralist State not a theocracy and, as such, the State must operate a system of laws that is wholly inclusive of all its people. In the democracy in which we live, we must safeguard the rights of all of our citizens. I am conscious that in 1916 and during the Civil War many brave men and women fought. They were brave people who strove to accomplish a republican democracy. Today the truest model of a republic is not one which is driven by the ideals of a particular set of church teaching, but rather those which are based on the rights of all to live in a free and just society, one which withholds the privilege of one group over another and which ensures the rights of all our people. This Bill is a stepping stone, as was said, and a bridge builder. I hope following today we will have a gentler, more caring and inclusive Irish society where we can all be free.

We have a duty to all our citizens to break down the walls of prejudice which have oppressed a largely silent majority for far too long. The stigma of homosexuality, on which Senators Fitzgerald, Healy Eames and Norris eloquently spoke today, has brought unbearable pressures on many young men and women. Ironically, Senator Fitzgerald used the words of President Mary McAleese when she said sexual identity is a discovery not a decision. I never thought I would stand in Oireachtas Éireann and be proud to support legislation which the Minister brought before the House.

He has not come here alone, rather, he has come here with the help of many people. It is a great day to be a Member of Seanad Éireann and as Senator Harris correctly said, today is a day where we can say we are proud to be Members of the Upper House where the standard and quality of debate has been second to none. It is a day we should celebrate and rejoice, a day we say we are all free and equal. I commend the Bill to the House.

I am privileged, as an elected Member of Seanad Éireann and the Fianna Fáil and Green Party coalition to speak on the Bill. I congratulate the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, for his ambition to put Ireland in the top ten countries in Europe for gay rights following the enactment of the Bill. I listened attentively to three groups——

I ask the Chair to ensure his colleagues are——

I did not realise the Senator was being interrupted. If I did I would have monitored them. Carry on, without interruption.

They are just chatting. As the Minister said, this is one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation to be agreed since Independence. It builds on the 1993 Act which was proposed by the then Minister for Justice, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, which decriminalised homosexuality. Fianna Fáil passed the Bill in 1993, contrary to the perception that it is not interested in equality and human rights. I vividly remember Máire Geoghegan-Quinn striding through the legislation.

So do I. She was great.

The cross-party support for the Bill in the Dáil, which was passed without a vote, shows the measures contained in it have the broad support of the Irish people and that securing the civil rights and human rights of gay people is a mainstream goal. As the Fianna Fáil spokesperson for gay people who have lived through times of severe oppression and discrimination, I know many entered their current long-term relationships against a backdrop of criminalisation of homosexuality, lack of family support and the absence of the current Bill. The Bill represents the dawning of a new era for the thousands of older gay and lesbian couples who have for many years cherished their relationships in the absence of social and legal recognition. They will now be able to celebrate publicly their relationships with family and friends and avail of a comprehensive set of legal protections, rights and obligations in the areas of taxation, pensions, inheritance, social welfare and shared home protection.

In my paper on what we can do about suicide in the new Ireland, I said that anxiety about gender and sexuality is one of the risk factors which has been linked to suicide and deliberate self-harm. It was echoed in a systematic review in the United Kingdom of mental disorder, suicide, and deliberate self-harm in lesbian, gay and bisexual people which concluded that lesbian and gay people are at higher risk of mental disorder, suicidal ideation, substance misuse, and deliberate self harm than heterosexual people. This was reiterated by BeLonGTo, Reach Out and the national strategy for suicide prevention which showed that lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people are more likely to be medicated for depression and are more likely to engage in alcohol misuse, drug abuse and deliberate self-harm. This is because gay and bisexual people have been subjected to institutionalised prejudice, social stress, social exclusion,even within families, and anti-homosexual hatred and violence, and this can internalise a sense of shame about their sexuality.

When I drew up my document on what we can do about suicide in the new Ireland I held public meetings to learn what people's feelings about suicide were. When I held public meetings they were crowded. It is not up to the Government, the HSE and the Department of Health and Children alone to help to reduce the level of suicide and deliberate self harm, it is also our responsibility. I call on local communities around the country to call public meetings about this Bill——

——and explain it to people all over the island and get people to open up, discuss it and lift the cloud, oppression, ambiguity, pain and isolation because talking about the issue will help. Young people have the Internet to keep in touch with the latest discussions and help available and can interact with one another in private, but older people do not have such a communication network, which is why I am calling for public meetings because we have to help those of all ages with the issues contained in the Bill.

I wish to discuss the Bill and the economy. As well as being a great advance in civil and human rights, there is also an economic perspective of which we need to take account. There can be no doubt that a society which is more open and tolerant and where diversity is cherished is one which is more innovative and productive. Our openness to gay people will be an important part of our success as an advanced, competitive and smart global economy. This fact is not lost on the world's biggest companies, many of which employ thousands of people in Ireland. Multinationals based here such as Microsoft, IBM, Facebook and Google all have strong equality policies in place for their gay staff. Ireland's increasing openness and acceptance of diversity is a significant factor in the capacity of people to attract and retain the workers they require.

I am currently readingBeyond Business, a memoir of Lord John Browne, the former chief executive of British Petroleum, BP. He has a detailed chapter on how he had to step down from his role because he was gay. He told a lie about where he met his partner. He said he met him running in Battersea Park but had in fact met him at an escort agency, a fact of which he was ashamed. He suppressed his sexuality for years because his mother was in Auschwitz and he did not want to upset her any more after her torture there. He was afraid to come out as chief executive of BP because he felt he would be finished. It is a perfect example of a company where it was a stigma to be gay. I recommend the book to everybody because it not just about the current troubles of BP. He also refers to his experience in Columbia, to where I have travelled seven times, on which he has a very detailed and blunt statement regarding the lack of human rights and oppression there.

I thank GLEN for its professionalism in the support we have been given in order to pass the Bill. A young man who has a great political future is Tiernan Brady. I hope his colleagues will not mind if I say he is a great young man.

Is he a member of Fianna Fáil?

They are everywhere.

He has parked his political career. I congratulate everybody involved with this legislation.

If a gay person can adopt a child, I cannot understand why a gay couple cannot do the same. If the birth parent of a child reared in a same-sex relationship dies, the child will be left without a legal protector. I had a discussion earlier with friends of Senator Leyden who were totally opposed to the Bill, but I told them the Minister would push ahead on the issue. Children are the most vulnerable in society.

This is about liberty, equality and fraternity in the true republican sense. The 1916 Proclamation asks us to cherish all the children of the nation equally.

Debate adjourned.