The Irish government’s proposals to introduce civil partnerships for gay couples have been attacked by Amnesty International as being “a second-class form of marriage”.

Amnesty International Ireland executive director Colm O’Gorman is to describe civil partnerships as “a second-class form of marriage for what the government clearly feels is a second-class group of people” in a speech tonight in Belfast.

In a statement, O’Gorman said: “At a time when countries around the world are moving forward, ending inequalities, we are enshrining discrimination in Irish law. This is not about the right to marry; it is about the right not to be discriminated against because of who you love. Failure to provide full marriage equality means that same-sex couples will not have full protection under the law.”

Describing the decision as “cowardly”, he pointed to scare stories about “gay bogeymen” stealing children and also cited a recent newspaper columnist arguing that women will be more likely to have abortions rather than have children adopted out of fear they could end up with a gay couple.

O’Gorman continued: “This is the kind of thinking that sees gay people as something ‘other’, something to be afraid of and defended against, as a community that has no place in normal society.”

In May, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell condemned the plans as “sexual apartheid”.

He said: “Civil partnerships are not good enough. They are second best. Same-sex couples deserve the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. Creating one law for gays and another for straights is a retrograde, divisive step.

“Civil partnerships will reinforce the ban on same-sex marriage and thereby reinforce discrimination. They will extend discrimination by denying heterosexual couples the right to have a civil partnership. This is not equality.

The proposed legislation will grant gay and lesbian couples legal recognition in areas such as pensions, social security, property rights, tax, succession and the payment of maintenance.

The government has ruled out gay marriage, claiming that it would require a change to the country’s constitution and a potentially divisive referendum.