Ireland is on course to roll back some of the world’s most most restrictive abortion laws after the first post-referendum exit poll predicted a landslide victory for the repeal of a 35-year constitutional ban.
The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI late on Friday suggested a 68% to 32% vote in favour of the yes vote for repeal of the eight amendment to the constitution laid down after a highly contentious referendum in 1983.
The highest yes vote was in Dublin where 77% of voters backed proposals to repeal, the poll found.
Good weather and strong feelings about the subject contributed to a high turnout across the country. The province of Leinster outside Dublin was predicted at around 66% if favour or repeal while Connacht-Ulster in the west was projected to be in favour of change by 59% to 41%.
The region includes Roscommon – the only county to have voted no to the marriage equality referendum in 2015.
Counting opens across the country at 9am local time on Saturday, with tallies expected to give a confident indication of the result by mid-morning or lunchtime and an official result to follow in the afternoon.
Exit polls do not always offer an accurate prediction of final results, but the size of the victory indicated by the Irish Times poll has reportedly led some on the no side to concede defeat on Friday night.
The Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who supported the change and called the referendum a once-in-a-generation chance, said earlier on Friday that he was quietly confident that the high turnout was a good sign.
Voters were 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 became the first country to adopt same-sex marriage by popular vote in a 2015 referendum.
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,” said Sophie O’Gara, 28, who was voting yes in Dublin.
“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 divided political parties, saw the once-mighty church take a back seat and became 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 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 was already a reality in Ireland.
Although not on the ballot paper, the no camp seized on government plans to allow abortions with no restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy if the referendum was 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.
The Irish government’s push to liberalise the laws is in contrast to the United States, where abortion has long been legal, but President Donald Trump backs stripping federal funding from women’s health care clinics that offer abortions.
Videos shared on social media showed scores of voters arriving home at Irish airports from abroad for the referendum. Those using the #hometovote hashtag on Twitter appeared overwhelmingly to back change. Many posted photos of themselves wearing sweatshirts bearing the “Repeal” slogan.
“Women and girls should not be made into healthcare refugees when they are in a time of crisis,” said Niamh Kelly, 27, who paid €800 euros and travelled 20 hours to return home from Hanoi where she works as an English teacher. “This is a once in a lifetime generation chance to lift the culture of shame that surrounds this issue so it was really important to me to be part of that.“