Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he was quietly confident that a strong early turnout in Ireland‘s abortion referendum on Friday would favour those seeking change in what only two decades ago was one of Europe’s most socially conservative countries.
Opinion polls suggest voters in the once deeply Catholic nation are set to overturn one of the world’s strictest bans on terminations and analysts say a high turnout, particularly in urban areas, is likely to favour a ‘Yes’ vote.
“Not taking anything for granted, of course, but quietly confident. There has been a good turnout so far across the country,” Varadkar, who is in favour of change and has called the referendum a “once-in-a-generation” chance, told reporters.
“A high turnout, I think, would be to the advantage of the ‘Yes’ campaign.”
Voters are being asked if they wish to scrap a 1983 amendment to the constitution that gives an unborn child and its mother equal rights to life. The consequent prohibition on abortion was partly lifted in 2013 for cases where the mother’s life is in danger. Ireland legalised divorce by a razor-thin majority only in 1995, but three years ago became the first country to adopt gay marriage by popular vote.
But no social issue has divided its 4.8 million people as sharply as abortion, which was pushed up the political agenda by the death in 2012 of a 31-year-old Indian immigrant from a septic miscarriage after she was refused a termination.
“I think this issue is important because it’s been 35 years since any person has had a choice to vote on this,” said Sophie O’Gara, 28, who was voting ‘Yes’ near Dublin’s bustling ‘Silicon Docks’, home to some of the world’s biggest technology firms.
“So many women have travelled across to England to take care of their family and healthcare needs and I think it’s a disgrace and it needs to change,” she said, referring to women who travel to Britain for abortions.
The fiercely contested vote has divided political parties, seen the once-mighty church take a back seat and become a test case for how global internet giants deal with social media advertising in political campaigns.
Unlike in 1983, when religion was front and centre and abortion was a taboo subject for most, the campaign was defined by women on both sides publicly describing their personal experiences of terminations.
“Yes” campaigners have argued that with over 3,000 women travelling to Britain each year for terminations – a right enshrined in a 1992 referendum — and others ordering pills illegally online, abortion is already a reality in Ireland.
Writing in the Times Ireland newspaper, Varadkar urged voters to put themselves in the shoes of an Irish woman dealing with a crisis pregnancy.
Although not on the ballot paper, the ‘No’ camp has seized on government plans to allow abortions with no restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy if the referendum is carried, calling it a human rights issue and a step too far for most voters.
“I think it’s important that we protect the unborn babies, people don’t care anymore about the dignity of human life. I’ve a family myself and I think it’s really important,” said John Devlin, a marketing worker in his 50s voting ‘No’ near Dublin’s city centre.
HOME TO VOTE
Opinion polls have shown the “Yes” side, in favour of changing the law, taking a clear lead.
Polling stations close at 2100 GMT and national broadcaster RTE will publish an exit poll at 2230 GMT. Vote-counting begins at 0800 GMT on Saturday, with the first indication of results expected mid-morning.
As campaigners handed out leaflets and stickers in a last ditch appeal to workers, RTE reported that early voting, particularly around Dublin, was brisk.
Videos shared on social media showed scores of voters arriving home at Irish airports from abroad. Ireland does not allow expatriates to vote via post or in embassies but those away for less than 18 months remain on the electoral roll.
As with the gay marriage referendum, those using the #hometovote hashtag on Twitter appeared overwhelmingly to back change. Many posted photos of themselves wearing sweatshirts bearing the “Repeal” slogan.
“It was just a quick hop across the pond,” said Harry Brennan, a 22-year-old consultant who returned home to south Dublin from London to vote ‘Yes’ alongside his 18-year-old brother, first-time voter Eoin.
“I think the fact that we’re sending people on planes and boats to other countries to deal with problems that should be dealt with at home, it’s important to make that right.”