Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has said children's legislation due to be published next month need not become entangled in debate on the same-sex marriage referendum.
But just as the Government's proposed wording to change the Constitution was published, advocates of a 'No' vote argued that children's future welfare was central to the forthcoming debate. Ministers agreed the wording for the marriage referendum at a special meeting yesterday and also cleared a less contentious constitutional change, lowering the qualification age to be President of Ireland from 35 to 21 years.
These two referendums are to be held on an as yet un-named date next May, along with a by-election in Carlow-Kilkenny to choose a replacement for EU Commissioner, Phil Hogan. The two main opposition parties, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, have pledged to support the referendum, which is being put forward by the two Coalition parties, Fine Gael and Labour.
But one prominent opponent of the constitutional change, Senator Ronan Mullen, said the Government had "oversimplified" the referendum proposition. "This is unfair in the way it is framed as it's not about marriage equality. This is about the right of children to be brought up by a father and a mother wherever possible," Senator Mullen said.
The Justice Minister said all issues relating to children will be dealt with in the Children and Family Relations Bill, which will be published next month and enacted as quickly as possible ahead of the referendum vote. The draft law proposes key changes to the laws on adoption, custody and assisted human reproduction.
Under existing laws, only married couples or individuals can adopt a child. But the new law would extend adoption rights to same-sex partners and cohabiting heterosexual couples.
Ms Fitzgerald conceded these important issues would generate debate. But she argued that they could be kept separate from the referendum campaign debate.
"The issue is one of equality, marriage equality. It is about removing the barriers which deny some couples the chance of marrying and of having relationships that are constitutionally protected," she said.
"The question is whether or not a new category of couples can have an equal right to marrying and to enjoying the protection of marriage afforded by the Constitution," the Justice Minister added.
Ms Fitzgerald said the proposition had been endorsed by a Fine Gael Ard Fheis and she believed backbench TDs and party members would canvass for it. Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Niall Collins also pledged party backing and brushed aside suggestions of some elected representatives opposing the measure.
Sinn Féin's Padraig Mac Lochlainn also endorsed the wording and called for a "resounding yes".
But Senator Mullen said there would be a vigorous campaign against the referendum now that the wording was published. He said that children's rights and welfare will be central to the debate.
The Justice Minister briefed the Opposition on the issue yesterday.