THE Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, appeared to give his approval yesterday to legal rights for couples, including homosexuals, who live in relationships other than marriage.
The bold statement by the archbishop is the first of its kind from such a senior Catholic prelate in Ireland.
It came in response to comments made by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern who said that extending rights to gay couples in the areas of tax and inheritance was the "fairest" and "Christian way to deal with this".
Dr Martin told the Irish Independent: "I recognise that there are many different kinds of caring relationships and these often create dependencies for those involved. The State may feel in justice that the rights of people in these relationships need to be protected."
He emphasised he was not thinking mainly of homosexual relationships, but rather of caring, dependent relationships in general. At the same time, he said, he did not exclude homosexual relationships.
Dr Martin said: "I have a wide range of relationships in mind. I do not exclude gay relationships but my main concern is with all caring relationships where dependencies have come into being."
He said the rights "would primarily be inheritance and property."
To date, the only other statement by a senior Catholic bishop on the issue of gay civil unions came from Archbishop Sean Brady in May. Dr Brady appeared to rule out civil recognition of such unions when he said people can already "make private legal provision, covering many areas of their lives together, including joint ownership of homes, living wills and powers of attorney".
Archbishop Martin's comments on the issue appeared to gain support last night from Family & Life, a pro-marriage organisation with strong Catholic connections.
The organisation's David Manly said although the law "recognises marriage as a unique relationship between a man and a woman" and confers benefits on it for the sake of children, "an exception could be made for siblings, or two people who have become dependent on one another".
Mr Manly said in these cases "certain rights and protections could be granted".
He added: "It's irrelevant in this context whether there is a sexual aspect to the relationship. As far as the State is concerned the only relevant issue should be whether there is a relationship of care and dependency."
Fine Gael's spokesperson on social welfare and equality, Senator Sheila Terry, told the Taoiseach to "move on rights for same-sex couples now".
"The Taoiseach should stop mouthing platitudes on the rights of same-sex couples and introduce legislation to give them the equality they deserve."