Ireland’s Minister of Justice has rejected the possibility of a referendum to allow gay marriage.

Labour Minister Brian Lenihan said civil partnership was easier to achieve, because gay marriage would require a constitutional change that would split the country.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, an LGBT organisation that is campaigning for gay marriage, he said he was keen to guarantee equality to gay people.

“This government, as our agreed programme reflects, is committed to full equality of opportunity for all in our society.

“In particular, we are committed to providing a more supportive and secure legal environment for same-sex couples” he said.

He ruled out, however, the possibility of gay marriage, saying it would need a change in the constitution and become a divisive issue, because every change to the Irish constitution requires a referendum.

“I believe equality for same-sex couples can be achieved through a diversity of legal arrangements and I am very keen that in the interests to your community we should proceed now to bring in a law that will give recognition and protection to same sex couples who are involved in loving stable relationships.”

The Minister said that the expected law should allow couples to formalise their relationships, undertake mutual rights and obligations, obtain legal protection and legal benefits for their relationships.

“Earlier this year Prime Minister of Ireland Bertie Ahern said that legislation would be approved during the lifetime of his government.

According to Leninan, it is now expected to be introduced by March 2008.

GLEN welcomed the Minister’s words, but added that only through marriage it was possible to achieve real equality and that they would continue to ask for it.

GLEN’s Chair Kieran Rose said that his organisation expected “principled, equality-based and comprehensive” legislation.

Homosexuality was decriminalised in the Republic of Ireland in 1993.

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

Article 41 of the Irish constitution says that:

“The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of marriage, on which the family is founded, and to protect it against attack.”

It does not give any definition of marriage itself, and thus does not outlaw gay marriage.