Leo Varadkar has declared victory in a referendum to overturn Ireland’s ban on abortion after overwhelming public support for a historic change to the country’s constitution.
In a vote that has sent shockwaves through Ireland’s political system, the campaign to repeal the ban is on track for a huge majority that defied expectations of a close vote on the eighth amendment to the country’s basic law that bans abortion in most cases.
“What we see is the culmination of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in Ireland over the past couple of decades,” Mr Varadkar told reporters at a west Dublin conference centre where votes from his constituency are being counted.
“The public have spoken. The result appears to be resounding in favour of repealing the eighth amendment. It’s possible even that we could carry every constituency in the country, men and women, almost every age group and every social class.”
In his first electoral contest since becoming prime minister last year, Mr Varadkar expects a vote of “more than two-to-one in favour” of the proposal to replace the 35-year abortion ban with measures allowing parliament to pass laws on abortion.
Ministers have tabled draft laws to allow terminations in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and Mr Varadkar said he now had a mandate “to do what we want to do” and enact legislation by the end of the year.
Irish women seeking terminations have traditionally travelled to the UK, leading repeal campaigners to say the eighth amendment had not stopped abortion in Ireland. They highlighted how the ban prevented abortion in cases of rape and where the baby could not survive outside the womb and said the unregulated use of illegal abortion pills, imported online, presented unacceptable dangers to women without medical supervision.
The repeal campaign, backed by the leaders of all parties in parliament, was opposed by a coalition of anti-abortion groups that said the ban protected fundamental human rights.
The formal result is not expected until late on Saturday afternoon. But a seismic move to scrap the ban seems certain after informal tallies of votes around the country confirmed exit poll surveys that pointed a landslide victory for the repeal campaign.
Josepha Madigan, culture minister and leader of the ruling Fine Gael party’s referendum campaign, said anti-repeal MPs should take cognisance of resounding Yes vote during debate in parliament on the legislation.
“The Irish people have spoken and in a very definitive way. I was shocked last night [when exit polls were released] but having said that, I shouldn’t be so shocked after hearing on a personal level all the stories that people told me,” she said.
“We’re more a progressive country than anything else. Our laws have to reflect the views and thoughts and the feelings of the Irish people and the Irish people have told us ‘we wanted this change.’ So this is what we have to do,” she said.
Tallies suggest all Dublin constituencies voted by at least 70 per cent to repeal the ban but there were also strong majorities also in areas of the country that had been expected to oppose the change. The vote is seen as a further liberalising step in a country in which the once powerful Catholic church is a greatly diminished force.
The cheers of pro-repeal activists rang around the City West conference centre as ballots were counted.
Eimear Farrell, an accountant who campaigned to remove the ban, said it was clear that undecided voters had made a “huge shift” in favour of repeal in days before the vote on Friday.
“Ireland has changed. It has changed in our lifetimes,” said Ms Farrell, declaring herself to be exhausted after weeks of campaigning.
“I have a 19-year-old daughter and now I know that she will live life in an Ireland that is more inclusive and compassionate and caring.”
Anti-repeal campaigners said they were saddened and disappointed at the outcome. “The result will pave the way for an abortion regime that has nothing to do with healthcare and everything to do with abortion on demand,” said Katie Fenton of the LoveBoth group that wanted to retain the ban.
“We hope that the taoiseach stands by his promise, which is that repeal means abortion in very restrictive circumstance.”
Geraldine Cullen, another LoveBoth activist, said public debate in the referendum campaign was not fair. “We’re going to object to paying taxes for abortions. We have very serious conscientious objections.
“I think there was a dishonesty really on the Yes side with all of the politicians, all the political parties saying Yes and all the media backing them up.”