A Bill designed to grant gay couples the same rights in law as married heterosexuals will be introduced in the Dublin Senate in April 2004. Just over a decade ago gay sex was still illegal in Ireland. Senator David Norris, a member of the upper House, has introduced a Domestic Partnership Bill which would, if passed, effectively legalise gay and lesbian marriages. He believes all the parties in Leinster House will back his legislation. The independent senator and Joycean scholar claims he has cross-party support for the bill, which will lead to formal gay unions in the Irish Republic if successful.
The gay senator stresses that his Bill is not only aimed at protecting the rights of gays and lesbians, but also heterosexuals who live with each other but are not formally married. ‘In terms of financial benefits such as inheritance rights, gay men, lesbians and unmarried couples are still second class citizens in this state,’ Norris said. ‘Take a gay couple who have been together all of their adult lives: if one of those men dies, his partner at present has no legal rights to inherit his long-term lover’s pension. He added: ‘The same is the case with mortgages where a house cannot be handed over to the life-long partner if their lover, who is the mortgage holder, were to die. It is a terrible injustice which must be righted.’
Norris pointed out that there have also been cases where life-long partners have been denied access to dying lovers in hospital. ‘I have dealt with cases where a long term lover goes to see his partner and that partner’s family ban him from seeing his lover,’ he said. ‘This is because they are not in law a next-of-kin and have no right even on the edge of death.’ Norris also expressed concern at Irish gay men’s inability to bring a partner from abroad into Ireland. ‘Today in Ireland, gay men from South America are very popular. ‘I know lots of men whose partners come from that continent but because their relationship is not recognised in law they have no rights, as heterosexuals do, to bring a foreign partner legally into the country.’
While the Catholic bishops are likely to oppose the bill, Catholic commentators accept that the issue is likely to be less heated than the controversy over gay marriage in the United States. Simon Rowe, the editor of the Irish Catholic, says the gay union issue ‘is not going to be lightning rod for Catholic anger’.
Younger Irish gay men, who have enjoyed unprecedented freedom, are predicting widespread support for the Bill. Brian Finnegan, the editor of Gay Community News, said: ‘I think the majority of Irish people are tolerant towards gay people. Gay men and lesbians are more socially acceptable and open in Irish society. ‘Most gay men are not into party politics or ideology but Senator Norris’s campaign is something even the most apolitical can relate to and support. If his Bill becomes law it will mean another victory for gay men and lesbians’ civil rights.’
If the Irish government decides to block his Bill, the 60-year-old senator is vowing to come out of semi-retirement for a final fight. ‘If the government does obstruct the legislation there is one battle left: I will take them all the way to the European Court of Human Rights,’ Norris said.