Opposition parties have urged the Government not to hold the proposed referendum on citizenship at the same time as the local and European elections.

When he unveiled his plans for a referendum on citizenship yesterday, Mr McDowell would not say when it would be held. However, he indicated if the legislation cleared the Oireachtas by 12 May, it could be held on the same day as the local and European elections on the 11 June.

Today in the Dáil, opposition parties urged the Government not to rush into the referendum.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said the issue should be studied by the all-party committee on the constitution, while Labour's Liz McManus said the Government needed to say now that it would uncouple this issue from the elections.

John Gormley of the Greens said the Minister was opportunistically 'playing the race card', while Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin of Sinn Féin claimed the referendum would unleash bigotry and racism.

Defence Minister Michael Smith said the Government would be as open and forthcoming as possible in the consultation process on the proposed legislation.

Hospital heads deny seeking change

Earlier, on RTÉ Radio, the Master of the Rotunda, Dr Michael Geary, denied Minister McDowell's claim that he and two colleagues had demanded a change in the law regarding non-nationals giving birth in Ireland.

Dr Geary said they simply presented the Minister with information and facts on the situation in their hospitals.

Mr McDowell made the claim on RTÉ Radio this morning when explaining his reasoning for introducing a referendum on the automatic right to citizenship of children born on the island of Ireland.

The change to the constitution would mean that non-national parents would have to be legally resident in the country for more than three years before any child could secure citizenship.

Labour Justice Spokesperson Joe Costello said he did not believe that it would be possible to have the referendum to coincide with the European and local elections in June.

Mr Costello said he stood over accusations by his party's leader, Pat Rabbitte, that the referendum was calculated to encourage racist tendencies.

Mr McDowell dismissed this, stating it was not racist to bring Irish law in line with what existed elsewhere in the EU.