'A date with destiny for all of us' - Strong early turnout as Ireland goes to the polls on controversial Eighth Amendment
- Yes side upbeat but remains wary of silent No vote in abortion referendum
- Some 6,500 polling stations open across the country
- Voting in the early hours said to be 'strong'
- Taoiseach: 'A high turnout would be advantageous to the Yes campaign'
- Peader Toibin: 'Those on the margins of society suffer most from abortion'
VOTING is under way as Ireland decides whether to liberalise its strict abortion regime by repealing the controversial Eighth Amendment.
Polls for the historic referendum opened across the country at 7am, with voters opting to either retain or repeal the Eighth, which prohibits terminations unless a mother's life is in danger.
Counting will begin on Saturday morning, with the result expected later that day - and the early indications are that it has been a strong turnout in many parts of the country so far today.
President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina cast their votes in Dublin at 9.30am.
A total of 3.3 million citizens are registered to vote, with 6,500 polling stations open across the country.
The referendum is asking whether people want to repeal the Eighth Amendment and replace it with wording that would hand politicians the responsibility to set future laws on abortion, unhindered by constitutional strictures.
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.
If the public votes Yes, the 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.
The debate during eight weeks of campaigning has been divisive, with the leaders of all the main political parties, including Taoiseach Leo 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.
"I think it's the right thing for the women of Ireland – care, compassion, dignity and safety. Equal healthcare is why I'm voting 'Yes'," said Joanna Faughan (33) voting in the north Dublin suburb of Castleknock where queues formed before polls opened.
On the opposing side is a 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.
"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 early 50s voting 'No' near Dublin's city centre.
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.
Around 2,000 voters in 12 islands off the mainland were eligible to vote on Thursday to prevent any delay in counting their ballot papers.
The Eighth Amendment is a clause in the constitution which was written after a previous referendum on the issue in 1983 recognised the right to life of the unborn child.
It protects the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn and effectively prohibits abortion in most cases.
In 1992, women were officially given the right to travel abroad, mostly to the UK, to obtain terminations. Pro-repeal campaigners said almost 170,000 have done so.
The liberalisation campaign gathered momentum after an Indian dentist, Savita Halappanavar, died in hospital in Galway aged 31 when she was refused an abortion during a miscarriage.
Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar, said she repeatedly asked for a termination but was refused because there was a foetal heartbeat.
In 2013, legislation was amended to allow terminations under certain tightly restricted circumstances - the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act.
When doctors felt a woman's life was at risk due to complications from the pregnancy, or from suicide, they were permitted to carry out an abortion.
Under pressure from the UN about alleged degrading treatment of women who travelled to England for terminations, the Government began exploring the possibility of further reform, culminating in the calling of this referendum and the promise to legislate.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who voted 'Yes' at his local polling station in Castleknock, has called the referendum a "once-in-a-generation" chance.
"A high turnout would be advantageous to the Yes campaign," Mr Varadkar said.
The Taoiseach encouraged everyone to get out and vote.
"The upside of a good sunny day in Ireland is that people come out to vote," he said.
Opposition TD Micheal Martin has cast his vote in the Cork South Central constituency.
The Fianna Fail leader said he had voted Yes for a more compassionate and more humane response for women in Ireland.
He tweeted: "One of the great strengths of Bunreacht na hEireann is its capacity for change through the will of the people.I have just voted to bring about a more compassionate and humane response for women in crisis pregnancies. #8thRef #Together4Yes"
Vocal anti-abortion politician Peadar Toibin has called for Irish people to vote No to "abortion on demand".
The Sinn Fein spokesman for the arts posted on Twitter: "The irony that the referendum on abortion is being held on International Missing Children's Day will not be lost on many Irish people. Those on the margins of society suffer most from abortion. Vote No to Abortion on Demand."
His party leader Mary Lou McDonald, however, has been calling for a Yes vote throughout the campaign.
She voted in St Joseph's School in Cabra.
"This is a momentous decision we're being asked to make for all of Irish society but particularly for Irish women," Ms McDonald said.
She described May 25th as a "date with destiny for all of us".
"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'.
"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 polls are open until 10pm tonight and turnout so far around the country is being described as "brisk", with large queues in some areas this morning as people voted before work and school.
Around Dublin, various areas were reporting turnouts of between 6pc and 8pc, for example.
It is reported to be slower in polling stations across both Cork city and county.
In many places, such as Mullingar, the turnout is higher than at this time during the Marriage Equality referendum in 2015.
In Dublin city centre turnout at St Francis’ Xavier school in the north inner city was 30pc at 1.30pm according to Fine Gael councillor, Ray McAdams. In Glasnevin in St Colomba’s National School turnout is 31pc at 2.15pm - with almost 66pc of those on the supplemental register having voted already, he said.
RTE news reports that voter turnout varies from 15pc to 23pc in Waterford to 20pc in Cork city at lunchtime.
Labour Senator Kevin Humphreys has reported a turnout of 47pc at a polling station on Belmont Avenue in Donnybrook, Dublin 4.
Save the 8th Campaign Chair Niamh Ui Bhriain said the group is “encouraged” by the high turnout so far.
“The Irish people are very clear about what they are voting on today – this is abortion on demand,” she said.
“There is a growing and quiet confidence that all the work done by our campaign, and the other campaigns on the No side, will pay dividend this evening. Our own projection of the result has it too close to call, and every vote will count”.
Both Yes and No campaign groups are organising transport for voters to polling stations.
Speaking this afternoon, Orla O’Connor, Campaign co-director with Together For Yes said: “Early indications are that turnout across the country is quite strong, however we know there are certain pockets where turnout is a bit slower, so we would encourage voters in these areas to talk to their friends, family members and work colleagues, and make sure they vote before the deadline of 10pm.”
In Co Mayo voting turnout at 4pm showed a high of 32pc in Westport and Ballina, with turnout in Castlebar coming in at the lowest in the county (23pc). Claremorris had a turnout of 27.5pc at that time, while Foxford stood at 26pc.