Ireland, once a Catholic bastion, promises civil unions for same-sex couples

Ireland, amid fast cultural change, is set to approve civil unions for same sex couples.

Dublin, Ireland – As the United States engages in a heated debate over gay marriage, European Union countries are rapidly striding toward total recognition of same-sex civil unions, if not marriage. The most recent example is Ireland.Last Thursday saw Ireland become the latest country to edge toward marriage equality for homosexual couples. The Irish parliament read and debated the Civil Partnership Bill 2009, introduced by Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern.

Despite Ireland's socially conservative image, opposition to the bill is virtually non-existent and will likely pass into law this month with widespread support from opposition parties Fine Gael and Labour as well as the governing coalition of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party.

If passed, the bill would see Ireland join a club of nine EU members that officially recognize civil unions. In addition, a further four EU countries – Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden – fully recognize same-sex marriages.

In the US, meanwhile, Maine and New York last month became the 31st and 32nd states, respectively, to vote against same-sex marriage though five states allow it and New Jersey may soon make six.

The Irish bill would grant same-sex couples rights in relation to domestic violence, residential tenancies, succession, refugee law, pensions, medical care, and equal access to state benefits and immigration.

Minister Ahern has told the few dissenters in his Fianna Fáil party that he would not allow the bill to be reworded to include a “freedom of conscience” amendment that would see businesses, organizations, and individuals who objected to homosexuality choose to treat gays in a civil union as singles.

Despite the fact that the bill represents a sea-change in Irish attitudes to sexual orientation, many have complained that it still allows some discrimination.

"The bill is clearly a stepping stone but does not go far enough," says political commentator and election adviser Robert Cassidy. "It has failed to address the rights of the child within a civil partnership as described with the bill and that is a major flaw."

MarrigEquality, a group that argues for full recognition of same-sex marriages, complains that the bill in fact institutionalizes discrimination. "Civil partnership without the option to marry sends a clear message out to the public that the government do not consider gay and lesbian relationships to be equal," says the organization's director Moninne Griffith.

Similar laws in the UK are set to be tested as a heterosexual couple, Tom Freeman and Katherine Doyle, have threatened to take the British government to the European Court of Human Rights after they were refused a civil union on the basis that only homosexual couples could be registered.

The latest move in Ireland comes against the backdrop of a country undergoing radical social and economic change. Ireland's furious economic growth – and recent decline – are well known around the world, but the country is also undergoing a spiritual transformation.

Despite the passage into law of an act outlawing blasphemy, Ireland is a less religious country today than at at any point in its history. The Catholic Church, long the lodestone of Irish life, has been hard-hit by seemingly endless revelations about child sex abuse perpetrated by priests – and covered-up by the Church hierarchy with the support of police.

Ireland's transformation has been relatively rapid. Condoms were legalized in 1985 and divorce in 1997. Homosexuality ceased to be a criminal offense in 1993 after the country was taken to the European Court of Human Rights by academic David Norris, an openly gay man who is now a senator in the Upper House of Ireland's parliament.

Abortion remains outlawed in Ireland with the primary objections being from religious groups, both Catholic and Protestant, who stand united on the issue.

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