Ireland’s upper house has passed a controversial civil partnership bill which will expose registrars to a fine and/or a prison sentence if they refuse to carry out same-sex unions.
However, the Bill’s passage became shrouded in controversy when last week’s debate in the Irish Senate, the Seanad, was cut short by a guillotine motion after just two days.
This is the first time that the motion has been used in decades, and critics warned that a longer debate on the Bill was needed to discuss the need for a conscience clause to protect the rights of those morally opposed to same-sex unions.
The Irish Bill, formally known as the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill, goes even further than UK legislation on civil partnerships as it lays out fines of up to €2,000 and/or up to a six month jail term for those who flout it.
The Bill was passed by politicians in Ireland’s lower house of representatives, the Dáil, earlier this month.
During last week’s debate politicians in the Seanad discussed a number of amendments to the Bill, including the insertion of a conscience clause.
However, the debate was controversially cut short by Donie Cassidy, the leader of the Seanad, who employed a rarely used guillotine motion to curtail the debate on just its second day.
Senator Ronan Mullen, who led the opposition to the Bill in the Seanad, criticised the decision.
He said: “It seems that vital legislation affecting family life and conscientious objection in Irish law is to be accorded less priority than the need of politicians to get out of Leinster House by 6 o’clock on a Thursday evening.”
The senator added: “The Government was happy to have a cosy debate in the Dail when there was no substantial opposition and no amendments.
“But they ran away from thorough scrutiny by the Seanad of the various unjust proposals contained within the Civil Partnership Bill.”
“The so-called liberal voices in Labour and Fine Gael went missing yesterday when there were calls for a free vote.
Today they turned their backs on free speech.”
His concerns were echoed by Bishop Christopher Jones, a leading Roman Catholic, who cautioned: “Once the State makes something legal, people automatically think it is OK for them. That is why the introduction of divorce has such a negative effect on our understanding of marriage. People think that if the State sees nothing wrong with the law, then it is morally right. That is how new laws can change the perceptions of people.”
The Bill will now pass to Mary McAleese, Ireland’s president, who will sign it into law or refer it to Ireland’s Supreme Court if she believes it is unconstitutional.
During a previous debate on the Bill in the Irish Senate, a number of Senators criticised the proposals.
Senator Jim Walsh said that the lack of a conscience clause will move the country “to a totalitarian society which certainly many of us, particularly liberals, would argue against if it were impinging upon their beliefs”.
Senator John Paul Phelan, from the opposition party Fine Gael, said: “Criminalising registrars for non-performance of their function is not a correct step in any legislation.”
In May a group of 19 church leaders wrote to the Irish Times declaring that the Civil Partnership Bill was a “direct attack” on freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.
In March Roman Catholic bishops criticised the legislation, warning that it “represents a fundamental revolution in our understanding of marriage and the family and cannot go unchallenged”.
David Quinn, a commentator writing in the Irish Independent, said Christians’ views on the Bill were being ignored.