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Same-sex partnership law 'one of biggest changes in 90 years'

THE new bill recognising same-sex partnerships was described last night as "one of the most important pieces of civil-rights legislation since independence".

Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said every political party had united behind the Civil Partnership Bill to "make a clear and powerful statement that gay people will never again have their status or relationships ignored".

He continued: "In advancing this bill, we take from no one. We undermine no one. We destroy nothing. We only give -- civil rights, protection and recognition of this State.

"James Connolly said, 'Ireland without her people means nothing to me.' Ireland is her people. The people are sovereign -- and we defer to no one but those people.

"Tonight, in their name, we vote to extend civil rights to countless thousands of Irish men and Irish women."

But the legislation is not passing without reservations and objections within the political system.

Fianna Fail Senator Jim Walsh reiterated his plan to vote against the bill in the Seanad next week. And Fine Gael TD Seymour Crawford asked Mr Ahern to bring in a "conscience clause" to allow people who have objections to presiding over a civil-partnership ceremony to opt out.

Nevertheless, the minister has repeatedly refused to grant such an exemption.

Green Party junior minister Ciaran Cuffe said the legislation was granting civil rights to people who had been denied them for years.

He admitted that the legislation had not gone as far as the Green Party would like but acknowledged that it represented important progress on a journey that would take years to reach its final destination.

Civil-rights groups and representatives of the gay community said it would transform the lives of thousands of couples.

Mr Ahern said the bill would put in place a legal regime reflecting "the many forms of relationships in modern Irish society".

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"Our society has changed substantially in recent decades. While marriage is more popular than ever, other forms of relationships have become increasingly common, they create some difficulties in the legal system and require in our law a measure of recognition and of protection," he said.

"Cohabitation is now a common feature of Irish society. For some, it may be a precursor to marriage and of short duration, others may choose not to marry.

"And there are couples who are precluded from marriage, particularly same-sex couples, but regardless of their legal status, the reality is that people who live together tend to develop a mutual dependency which becomes more pronounced over time," he added.

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