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Gay couples in Ireland now have the Irish Government's blessing -- though not the Church's in the heavily Catholic nation -- to be protected by new civil-partnership laws granting their unions legal recognition.

However, the new law does not give "civilly unioned" gay couples the same rights as married heterosexual couples.

Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said the laws provided "very significant rights to civil partners" in the Irish Republic.

"(The move) provides legal protection for cohabiting couples and is an important step, particularly for same-sex couples, whose relationships have not previously been given legal recognition by the state," Ahern said.

Those entering into civil partnerships now have a wide range of rights and responsibilities, including pension rights and child-support obligations.

The law also provides protection for a financially dependent person at the end of a long-term cohabiting relationship whether through break-up or the death of a partner.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Ireland in 1993 following a European Court ruling that the country was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.