Northern Ireland news

Abortion referendum count gets under way

Marie O'Donnell casts her vote at Scoil Mhuire Gan Smal Polling Station, Lifford, Co. Donegal
David Young

The result of the Republic's abortion referendum is expected later today.

There were reports of a strong turnout for the historic poll in many parts of the country last night.

President Michael D Higgins and political leaders turned out yesterday to cast their ballots in the referendum on whether to liberalise the country's strict abortion laws.

Thousands of people living overseas travelled home in droves to exercise their democratic right on the emotive issue.

Polls for the historic vote opened across the country at 7am, with citizens effectively opting to either retain or repeal the Eighth Amendment of the state's constitution, which prohibits terminations unless a mother's life is in danger.

The results of the referendum are expected later today.

The specific question people are being asked is whether they want to see the Eighth Amendment replaced with wording in the constitution that would hand politicians the responsibility to set future laws on abortion, unhindered by constitutional strictures.

If the public votes Yes, the Irish government intends to legislate by the end of the year to make it relatively easy for a woman to obtain the procedure in early pregnancy.

Ministers have promised to allow terminations within the first 12 weeks, subject to medical advice and a cooling-off period, and between 12 and 24 weeks in exceptional circumstances.

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina cast their votes in Dublin on Friday morning.

Around two hours later Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, a vocal advocate for repeal, voted in the city.

"I always get a little buzz from voting, it just feels like it is democracy in action," Mr Varadkar said after emerging from the polling station at Castleknock.

"Not taking anything for granted of course, but quietly confident - there's been good turnout across the country so far and hoping for a Yes vote tomorrow.

"Obviously, I would be encouraging everyone to come out and vote, a high turnout would be to the advantage of the yes campaign."

Leader of the main opposition party, Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin, voted to repeal in his constituency in Cork while Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald also cast a Yes vote in Dublin.

However, her Sinn Fein party colleague and vocal anti-abortion campaigner Peadar Toibin continued to encourage people to vote No to "abortion on demand".

"The irony that the referendum on abortion is being held on International Missing Children's Day will not be lost on many Irish people," he tweeted.

"Those on the margins of society suffer most from abortion. Vote No to Abortion on Demand."

A total of 3.3 million people are registered to vote, with 6,500 polling stations open across the country.

The Catholic Church is among influential voices arguing that the life of the unborn should be sacrosanct, but the retain campaign faces a major challenge from a Yes camp which has portrayed itself as modernising and in step with international opinion.

The debate during eight weeks of campaigning has been divisive, with the leaders of all the main political parties, including Fine Gael leader Mr Varadkar, backing change.

They argued that a Yes vote represented the compassionate choice for thousands of Irish women forced to travel to England for the procedure.

Opposing them was a vocal No camp, including the bishops, which insisted the life of the child is sacrosanct and interference in that right is immoral.

Campaigners against change have used emotive language to highlight the threat to the foetus and warned against "extreme" proposals from the government which could be expanded in future years.

Opinion polls have been tight, with most showing the Yes side in the lead.

The indication is that rural voters are more likely to say No than their urban counterparts, while a significant number of "don't knows" have cast a degree of uncertainty over the outcome.

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