Ireland’s largest gay rights group has responded to an attack on civil partnerships by the country’s Roman Catholic leader.

Cardinal Sean Brady said in a sermon on Sunday that civil partnerships undermine marriage and challenged Catholics to “stand clearly on the side of Christ or depart from him” on the issue.

Civil partnerships are already legal in Northern Ireland and there is legislation before the Republic of Ireland’s parliament to introduce them.

Kieran Rose, Chair of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), said:

“There is a democratic consensus for Civil Partnership. It follows extensive national dialogue and consultation, and has extensive public and political support.

“Legal recognition was part of every political party‚Äôs manifesto in the last general election and is part of the Programme for Government.

“Successive opinion polls over the last five years demonstrate that there is overwhelming public support for legal recognition for same-sex couples.

“The Cardinal is, of course, entitled to an opinion on Civil Partnership and is entitled to express it. Churches too are entitled to marry whom they wish in their churches.

“However, Civil Marriage and Civil Partnership are to do with the State. The State, through Civil Partnership, is for the first time providing recognition and comprehensive protections for lesbian and gay couples.”

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.

It does not provide for legal recognition of the many same-sex couples, in particular women, who are parenting children together.

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