On Monday Irish President Mary McAleese signed the groundbreaking Irish Civil Partnerships Bill into law, providing Irish gay couples most but not all of the rights of marriage.

The Irish gay community says that the bill, although welcome, does not provide their relationships full equality with other Irish citizens.

The bill will make civil partnerships available to same-sex couples, but it also makes them available to unmarried heterosexual couples, and also to cohabiting companions who are in non-sexual relationships. So to call the bill a “gay partnership bill” is misleading, say critics, because civil partnerships are not confined to gay and lesbian Irish citizens.

This bill is certainly welcome, but it creates a whole new class of Irish citizen, who has most -- but not all -- of the rights afforded to married heterosexual Irish citizens as a matter of course,” Brian Finnegan, editor of GCN, Ireland’s premier gay and lesbian newspaper, told the Irish Voice.

“If we’re not celebrating it’s because you really shouldn’t celebrate being second best, because then you’ll be given third best. Instead you persevere until you’ve achieved real equality.”

The new rights the bill include protections and obligations across areas such as protection of the couple’s shared home, domestic violence, residential tenancies, succession, refugee law, pensions, taxation and social welfare. Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern said it was “one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation to be enacted since independence.”

Although the bill gives heterosexual couples new options, it’s believed that most will still prefer to get married rather than commit to a civil partnership, since marriage would give them better legal protections. 

The bill was passed after 23 hours of groundbreaking Seanad (Irish Senate) debate on the nature of love and marriage.

“It was really an unprecedented debate for the Irish government,” adds Finnegan. “You can download all the discussions that the government had on love and marriage law on our website.”

What’s really remarkable, says Finnegan, is that same-sex partnerships now enjoy cross-party support in both houses of the Dail  (Parliament). The speeches in the debate before the bill was adopted illustrate just how far Ireland has come in recognizing diversity and promoting equality, and Irish public opinion polls show that the vast majority of Irish citizens want to see essential fairness for same-sex couples.

It’s important to clarify that the bill makes no distinction between sexes, Finnegan adds. Although celebrated by gays in Ireland as a breakthrough piece of legislation, most see it only as an important step towards eventual “gay marriage equality,” something the bill stops short of.

Changes on the ground will happen quickly, however. Gay and lesbian couples that entered into a civil partnership in Northern Ireland, or a gay marriage in the U.S., will have their unions automatically recognized once the supporting legislation comes into force in 2011.

Ultimately, it’s believed, the same legal protections that apply to married couples will apply to those who have entered civil partnerships.

In the meantime gay groups in Ireland believe that their progress toward full equality will be incremental. The Irish government will slouch toward full equality, they say.

The new legislation is a major step forward, but the rights of children of same-sex couples still need to be addressed, Finnegan says, also adding that the bill has not seen an improvement for gay Irish citizens with foreign-born partners.

“There are already immigration possibilities for same sex partners, with or without civil partnerships, it’s a relatively recent change,” a spokesperson from the Irish Department of Justice told the Irish Voice.

Meanwhile, although the Catholic Church bitterly opposed the new bill their calls were unanimously resisted by all political parties, who argued that the new bill was a civil issue and not a religious one.

“It’s quite a move for Irish society toward equality, but its not actually equality,” says Finnegan.

“The majority of cross-party speakers acknowledged that it wasn’t full equality, that it was a step along the road.

“Meanwhile the March For Marriage will happen in Dublin in August. Six-thousand marched last year and they expect even greater numbers this year. That’s a message to the government that we accept that you have acknowledged our relationships, but we’re not going to stop fighting for equality.”