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Dermot Ahern’s confusing stance on Civil Partnerships

The Government’s Civil Partnership Bill began the process of going through committee earlier this week. Sadly, no amendments on religious freedom were tabled, much less debated.

Instead, we had amendments from both Fine Gael Justice spokesperson Charlie Flanagan and Labour Justice spokesperson Brendan Howlin, asking that Civil Partnership be made even more like marriage.

Deputy Flanagan wanted an amendment which would have obliged solicitors advising clients wishing to dissolve their civil partnerships to inform their clients of the option of reconciliation or mediation.

This obligation is currently binding on solicitors advising parties to a divorce.

Mr Flanagan also suggested an amendment to the Bill such that courts would be required, on the dissolution of a civil partnership, to take into account the contribution made by either partner to the upbringing of any child to which the couple acted as guardian.

Interestingly, Justice Minister Dermot Ahern’s objection to Mr Flanagan’s first suggestion is that such an amendment would make civil partnerships too much like marriage.

Referring to advice given to his Department by the Attorney General, the Minister said that this would make the legislation more open to a Constitutional challenge.

Mr Ahern said that the absence of such a requirement was “part of keeping the key distinction between marriage and civil partnership”.

Mr Ahern also said that Mr Flanagan’s suggestion requiring courts to take the contribution made by either partner to a civil partnership to the upbringing of child might weaken the distinction between marriage and civil partnership.

So as Minister Ahern and his advisors would have it, the fact that solicitors are required to advise couples who are about to divorce is fundamental to maintaining the difference between marriage and civil partnership.

Similarly, the fact that courts are obliged to take into account contributions made by either party to a divorce is supposedly a core characteristic of marriage.

The fact that civil partnerships will get nearly all the same substantive benefits as marriage, in terms of tax, inheritance rights and pensions, on the other hand, is not judged fundamental at all.

In other words, Mr Ahern is suggesting that, by ensuring that relatively little known provisions, which are more properly relevant to divorce rather than marriage, are not attached to civil partnership, the Government has fulfilled its Constitutional duty “to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack”.

To put it mildly, it is difficult to accept Mr Ahern’s logic on this point.