TAOISEACH Enda Kenny has declared his support for gay marriage and promised to campaign for it in a referendum.
The Government has decided an historic vote on same-sex marriage will be held by mid- 2015. The decision puts Mr Kenny on a collision course once again with the Catholic Church and conservatives following the bruising encounter over abortion.
Up until now, Mr Kenny had avoided giving a view on gay marriage.
He asked Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore last week for more time before making a decision on whether to hold a referendum.
But he told ministers at Cabinet yesterday that he was in favour of gay marriage and agreed to hold a referendum by mid-2015 at the latest.
He made his position public last night by telling business people at a function in Dublin that he was going to hold a referendum on the "equality issue of gay marriage" in 18 months.
"I support that very strongly and we'll campaign for that when it comes," he said.
In a swift response, the Catholic Church indicated it would oppose the referendum, saying that any change to the nature of marriage would "undermine" it as the fundamental building block of society.
The vote is expected to be held in the spring of 2015 with up to six other referendums on changes to the Constitution on the same day.
Bishop Denis Nulty said the Catholic Church would continue to hold that the differences between a man and woman were "not accidental to marriage but fundamental to it".
He said that children had a "natural right to a mother and a father" and that this was the best environment for them, where it was possible.
"The church will participate fully in the democratic debate leading up to the referendum and will seek with others to reaffirm the rational basis for holding that marriage should be reserved for the unique and complimentary relationship between a woman and a man from which the generation and upbringing of children is uniquely possible," he said.
The Government was damaged by the defeat of the Seanad abolition referendum, with one minister saying privately that a new approach needed to be taken to avoid a repeat.
A government spokesman said there was a need to have a significant lead-in period to explain the issues around the vote to the public.
"The Government is very anxious that this should be won," he said.
But the Government is set to face an early test in the run up to the gay marriage referendum. The Cabinet has agreed that the laws on family and adoption rights for gay people will be voted through the Dail in advance of the gay-marriage referendum in 2015 to prevent them from overshadowing it or becoming an issue in the campaign.
There will be a family rights bill published before Christmas to give the guardianship and custody rights to gay people, as well as the ability to become surrogate parents.
And Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald is going to bring forward legislation to allow for children to be adopted by gay people.
Fine Gael sources have acknowledged that passing these laws will bring up "sensitive issues" which could pose problems for some of their backbenchers.
However, Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) chairman Kieran Rose said the groups were "delighted" with the decision to hold a referendum to provide equal access to civil marriage for lesbian and gay people in 2015.
And he said Mr Kenny's backing for it was a momentous and proud moment.
"The Taoiseach's support for the full and equal citizenship of lesbian and gay people is deeply heartening and encouraging both for lesbian and gay people and for the families of gay and lesbian people all over Ireland," he said.
There have already been 1,500 civil partnerships between gay and lesbian people since the legislation was introduced three years ago.
But the Government was forced to act on holding a gay marriage referendum after the Constitutional Convention voted by a 79pc majority in favour of it. The deadline for the Government to either accept or reject the referendum recommendation expired this month.
The State is still awaiting the result of a Supreme Court challenge by Senator Katherine Zappone and her partner Ann Louise Gilligan, pictured below, to the ban on gay marriage. The decision to hold a gay marriage referendum was strongly welcomed by Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore.
A spokesman for him said it was an important day. It was only 20 years since homosexuality had been decriminalised and the announcement of a referendum on gay marriage was a sign of how much things had changed.
"This is probably the last significant legal change (in this area)," he said.
Meanwhile, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has said the Fine Gael parliamentary party has not met to gauge whether the referendum on civil marriage has the full support of all Fine Gael TDs.
The Government has agreed to hold a referendum on civil marriage for same-sex couples in the first half of 2015.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has given a strong backing to the Cabinet decision.
But Fine Gael TDs will be meeting tonight, at which point it will be possible to measure the level of support from the party.
“We haven’t had our conversation yet in the parliamentary party…we will have that conversation this evening,” Minister Shatter said on RTE Radio’s Morning Ireland today.
“This was a historic decision made by Cabinet yesterday,” he said.
“This is simply to facilitate their relationship being regarded as a marriage relationship.”
“There are very few people in Ireland who don’t have a friend who’s gay or a neighbour.”
He said the decision was “based on reality and what’s currently happening in our society”, and he said it is no surprise that the Catholic Church is opposing the decision.
“I don’t think anyone would be surprised by the view given by the Church.”
“It’s being recognised worldwide,” and “it’s the view of the majority,” that everyone should be treated equally, he said.
“We have a long lead in to this referendum,” he said.
Children's minister Frances Fitzgerald said today that she personally supports gay marriage.
"Personally I am in favour of gay marriage. I think it is am equality issue", she said
She said the decision to conduct a referendum on the issue was a correct one and she was looking forward to an informed public debate. She said many other countries had already made similar decisions.
Michael Brennan, Geraldine Gittens and Fionnan Sheahan