By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland will hold a referendum on same sex marriage in 2015, just over two decades after the once stridently Catholic country legalized homosexuality, the government said on Tuesday.
The once dominant role of Catholicism has started to fade after revelations of rape and beatings by members of religious orders and the priesthood and Prime Minister Enda Kenny has even delivered a once-unthinkable rebuke to the Vatican over its handling of the scandals.
Ireland recognized the legal rights of same-sex couples for the first time in 2009 in a civil partnership bill that gave people in long-term relationships many of the statutory rights of married couples.
The move towards the granting of further rights follows a bitter and polarizing campaign over the government's decision earlier this year to allow limited access to abortion that led to large protests from both sides of the debate.
"What the government decided was that by mid-2015, this question ... would be put to the people," Kenny told parliament.
France's decision to legalize gay marriage was met by some of its largest protests in decades this year, although Pope Francis said recently that the Church must ditch an obsession with condemning homosexuality, contraception and abortion or risk the collapse of its moral edifice.
Ireland's junior government party Labour has been a firm supporter of the introduction of same sex marriage in Ireland. Its leader, Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore, has described it as "the civil rights issue of this generation."
Kenny, who was sent letters written in blood during the abortion campaign, faced down more rebels from his Fine Gael party over the issue than over austerity measures demanded under an international bailout.
Ireland's Constitutional Convention, a new body comprised mainly of citizens selected at random which is convened to recommend future amendments to the constitution, advised the government earlier this year that a referendum should be held.
It added that were the constitution to be amended, legislation should be introduced to address the parentage, guardianship and upbringing of children in families headed by same-sex married parents.
According to a survey conducted last year for Marriage Equality, a group for civil marriage for gay and lesbian people in Ireland, 75 percent of the Irish people would vote yes in a referendum to extend civil marriage to same-sex couples.
"The government announcement sets a process in motion whereby lesbian and gay couples and our families will finally be accepted as equal citizens in Irish law," Kieran Rose of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Sam Cage; editing by Ron Askew)