- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004

DUBLIN — Ireland should legalize civil partnerships between unmarried couples, including homosexuals, but not pursue full-fledged same-sex “marriage,” Justice Minister Michael McDowell said yesterday in his first major policy speech on the matter.

Ireland has become one of Europe’s most prominent legal battlegrounds on the matter after a lesbian couple filed a lawsuit this month against the country’s tax-collection agency for refusing to recognize their 2003 “marriage” in Canada. Married couples can claim a special income-tax credit.

An all-party committee of lawmakers this month also launched public hearings into possible reforms to family law in Ireland, a predominantly Roman Catholic country where homosexuality was outlawed until 1993.

Mr. McDowell declared that the government today was “unequivocally in favor of treating gay people as fully equal citizens in our society.” But he said the current heavy public focus on whether to extend full marriage rights and responsibilities to same-sex couples “is too narrow.”

He listed a wide range of committed relationships outside of marriage that the state should recognize as likely to require changes to Ireland’s laws governing tax, inheritance and pensions.

“There are many cohabiting heterosexual couples. There may be brothers sharing a farm. There may be an elderly parent being supported by a child. These may be people living together who share an economic interdependence without having any sexual aspect to their relationship at all,” he said.

He said Ireland’s parliament should pass legal changes that “formally recognize people who have entered into a civil partnership with each other,” regardless of their sexuality, and allow the surviving half of such partnerships “to acquire next-of-kin status.”

But Mr. McDowell said the question of whether nonmarried couples should enjoy the full range of financial rights and responsibilities as married couples involved “detailed and often technical questions not capable of being easily answered.”

Ireland’s 2001 census identified nearly 70,000 households involving non-married couples, including 1,300 same-sex couples, in this country of 3.9 million. Mr. McDowell said cutting the tax burden on those households would increase the tax burdens elsewhere.

Mr. McDowell said that seeking to grant same-sex couples full marriage rights would require a national referendum to Ireland’s 1937 Constitution. He predicted that an electoral battle would polarize society and run a strong risk of voter rejection, which would delay for years the introduction of civil-partnership rights.

He also noted that in Ireland — where divorce was legalized only in 1997, after a razor-thin referendum victory — cohabiting couples would be wise to avoid the legal downsides of marriage.

Ireland’s divorce law requires married couples to be separated for a minimum of four years before they can file for divorce, an often-grueling process that can require two separate court battles — the first to reach a separation agreement, the second a divorce.

He said it would be unreasonable for Ireland to impose the same system on people ending a civil partnership. He said such people should be “free to formalize a new relationship” without waiting for four years.

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