The Dáil was repeatedly suspended amid unruly scenes this morning in a row over the absence of Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern.

Fine Gael claimed Mr Ahern's failure to attend to renew the Offences Against the State Act was an insult to the House.

The fury grew when the party learned he was holding a news conference on planned legislation on victims' rights, which Fine Gael claimed upstages its own Private Members' Bill, the second stage of which is due to be debated next week.

Fine Gael's Alan Shatter called Mr Ahern's move a cynical attempt to manipulate journalists.

There were more rowdy scenes and a number of suspensions as junior minister Barry Andrews tried to move the motion. That culminated in a threat from Ceann Comhairle John O'Donoghue to suspend the sitting for the rest of the day.

When Mr Ahern did appear to take the legislation, he said Mr Shatter was like a spoilt child whose toy had been taken away from him.

The Minister's spokesman later said Mr Shatter's victims' bill was 'legislation by Google', taken verbatim from the corresponding measure in New Zealand.

However, Fine Gael is claiming victory, claiming it 'Mr Ahern's news conference stunt had well and truly backfired on him.'

Plan for victims' rights law detailed

Mr Ahern has promised to publish legislation next year to extend the rights of victims of crime and of their families.

At a news conference today, he said that the families of victims of homicide victims had suffered 'hurt, isolation and unbearable trauma', and that the proposed changes are intended to address that.

Minister Ahern said that the measures - which were approved by Cabinet this week - will be presented in a 'new groundbreaking Bill' early next year.

The substance of the Bill will be drawn from the recommendations contained in the recent report from the Commission for the Support of the Victims of Crime, which was established in 2005 by the then Minister for Justice Michael Mc Dowell.

Key elements are the provision that, in the case of acquittal, a trial be re-opened if a judge has erred, if convincing new evidence is presented, or if the trial is found to have been interfered with. Minster Ahern said this would apply only to 'very exceptional' cases, and very serious crimes, including murder, man slaughter and rape.

The Irish Council of Civil Liberties says that today's measures 'seem to be changing rights for the accused, without addressing the rights of victims'. The group criticised what it called the lack of a rights-based approach.