London, May 26: Ireland's Indian-origin Prime Minister Leo Varadkar today declared that the country was set to make history as exit polls indicated a landslide victory for the 'Yes' vote to repeal the country's stringent abortion laws in a landmark referendum.
"What we've seen today is the culmination of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in Ireland for the past 10 or 20 years," Varadkar told RTE, Ireland's public broadcaster.
According to an exit poll published by ‘The Irish Times', 68 per cent voted in favour of abolishing the eighth amendment to the Irish Constitution that gives an unborn child and its mother equal rights to life. More than 4,500 voters were interviewed by Ipsos/MRBI as they left polling stations yesterday, with the highest 'Yes' vote expected in Dublin at 77 per cent.
The results of the referendum will be confirmed later today after the count is completed. "It's looking like we will make history," said Varadkar, as the exit poll results poured in.
While the two main parties of Ireland - Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - did not take official positions on the referendum, politicians were permitted to campaign on a personal basis and Varadkar had been campaigning strongly in favour of a Yes vote.
"It has been an honour to be on this journey with you and to work #togetherforyes… Thank you to everyone who voted today. Democracy in action,” the premier said in an online message.
The 'Savethe8th' movement, which led to the 'No' campaign, has effectively conceded defeat. “What Irish voters did yesterday (Friday) is a tragedy of historic proportions. However, a wrong does not become right simply because a majority support it,” it said in a statement.
Thousands of Irish people living abroad flew home to cast their vote in the historic referendum. The #hometovote push online grew steadily for several days leading up to the vote. The hashtag filled up social media as Irish citizens boarded planes in Buenos Aires, Bangkok, Tokyo, Sydney, Los Angeles, New York and from all across Europe and the UK.
Turnout was on course to be one of the highest for a referendum in Ireland, possibly topping the 61 per cent who voted in the plebiscite that backed same-sex marriage in the country in 2015.
Penny Mordaunt, the UK's minister for women and equalities, welcomed the forecasted result. She tweeted, "Based on the exit poll, a historic & great day for Ireland, & a hopeful one for Northern Ireland. That hope must be met".
Acknowledging an equal right to life for both the unborn child and the mother, the eighth amendment effectively prohibited termination in almost all cases, including rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality.
One of the key cases influencing the debate on abortion in Ireland was that of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar, who died of sepsis in a hospital in Galway after being denied an abortion during a protracted miscarriage in 2012.
Her husband Praveen Halappanavar had told her inquest that she requested a termination but was refused because the baby's heart was still beating. A midwife manager at Galway University Hospital confirmed that she told Halappanavar a termination could not be carried out because Ireland was a “Catholic country”. The inquest into her death returned a verdict of medical misadventure.
“I hope the people of Ireland remember my daughter Savita on the day of the referendum, and that what happened to her won't happen to any other family,” her father Andanappa Yalagi said from his home in Karnataka.
Her death had triggered a massive debate in the country over the issue of life-saving abortions and resulted in a new law that allows abortions under extreme circumstances. The Irish parliament voted to legalise abortion in cases of medical emergencies as well as the risk of suicide in July 2013.
The referendum this week will take that further, and if the 'Yes' vote wins, the existing article of the Constitution which was inserted in 1983 - and the 1992 additions - will be replaced with this text: “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.”
The Catholic church had strongly opposed repealing the amendment and Irish bishops warned in a joint statement that “We believe that the deletion or amendment of this article can have no other effect than to expose unborn children to greater risk and that it would not bring about any benefit for the life or health of women in Ireland."