The Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has announced that the government will introduce a bill to legalise civil partnerships by March 2008.

While opposing a similar bill put forward by the opposition Labour party yesterday, Brian Lenihan said that details would follow soon.

He confirmed that the special place of marriage in the Irish Constitution there would be no moves to legalise gay marriage.

The Green party, who are partners in the coalition government with Fianna Fail, put pressure on their colleagues to advance civil partnerships.

When a similar proposal was put forward by Labour earlier this year, the Greens voted in favour of it.

The Justice minister objected to yesterday’s Labour bill because it referred to the rights and duties of marriage as applying to civil partners.

The government proposal is to set up a new agency to register partnerships, which could be formed by any two individuals who are co-habiting including family members.

The Green party’s justice spokesman Ciaran Cuffe said:

“This is a major step forward in equality. For the first time, the Government has pledged to extend to same-sex unions the same legal protection as that enjoyed by heterosexual couples.”

Homosexuality was decriminalised in the Republic of Ireland in 1993.

Both discrimination and incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation are illegal.

A recent opinion poll found 84% in favour of some sort of recognition for lesbian and gay couples.

Northern Ireland, as part of the UK, has had same-sex civil partnerships since December 2005.