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Ireland should legalize civil partnerships between unmarried couples, including homosexuals, but not gay marriage, Justice Minister Michael McDowell said Saturday in his first major policy speech on the matter.

Ireland has become one of Europe's most prominent legal battlegrounds on the matter after a lesbian couple filed a lawsuit this month against the country's tax-collection agency for refusing to recognize their 2003 marriage in Canada. Married couples can claim a special income tax credit.

McDowell declared that the government today was "unequivocally in favor of treating gay people as fully equal citizens in our society." But he said the current heavy public focus on whether to extend full marriage rights and responsibilities to gay couples "is too narrow."

He listed a wide range of committed relationships outside of marriage that the state should recognize as requiring reforms to Ireland's laws governing tax, inheritance and pensions.

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