Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern refused to allow party colleagues to abstain or vote against a new bill legalizing civil partnerships for gay couples.

He banned the so-called "freedom of conscience" clause for colleagues to defy the government and vote against the bill.

Ahern engaged in a debate with over 30 disgruntled parliamentary colleagues yesterday before the bill was introduced.

Sean Connick, chairman of Fianna Fail's Justice committee, organized the meeting and said that the members were split on the bill.

However, Ahern said the bill would "change the legal landscape" for gay and lesbian couples and added that the absence of such legalization promoted "prejudice and inequality" in our society.

The minister is adamantly opposed to a "freedom of conscience" amendment that would allow party members a free vote and not force them to vote with the government.

The new bill gives same sex couples greater rights and allows them to register their civil partnership. If the bill is passed, gay couples will be able to avail of social and tax benefits.

However, the legislation stops short of allowing same sex marriages. The legislation will also allow cohabitants to avail of benefits. This will apply to both same sex and opposite couples.

There been mixed reactions to the bill. Some believe it does not go far enough to solve inequality amongst gay groups.

The Students Union of Student of Ireland believes it further defines second class citizenship for gays in Ireland.

The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network welcomed the legislation, and said it would bring closure to the problems gay couples face by granting nearly all the rights that married couple receive.

The Equality Authority felt that the legislation fell short of full equality for gay couples and felt that the issues of guardianship, access and inheritance were looked over.