(BBC) Vote counting is under way after the Republic of Ireland’s crucial second referendum on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. Early returns are showing clear majorities for the “Yes” campaign – just 18 months after voters rejected the treaty in the first referendum.>
The treaty, aimed at streamlining decision-making in the 27-nation EU, cannot take effect unless all member states ratify it.
Ireland’s foreign minister predicted a convincing win for the “Yes” campaign. “I am delighted for the country,” Micheal Martin told Irish radio on Saturday.
While the official result of the referendum is expected late this afternoon, indications will come sooner.
The leader of the anti-Lisbon lobby group Libertas, Declan Ganley, said the result marked a “very convincing win” for the “Yes” camp.
Counting started at centres across the country at 0900 (0800 GMT) and results relayed to the national count centre in Dublin Castle are expected to filter through within hours.
Early count centre tallies showed constituencies in the capital Dublin had voted 56% in favour, with early indications from Galway putting the “Yes” vote at 63%, Irish broadcaster RTE reported.
An informal exit poll by the main opposition Fine Gael party estimated a 60% “Yes” vote, RTE said earlier.
Irish bookmaker Paddy Power was offering odds of 1/25 on a “Yes” vote – suggesting it was the overwhelming favourite.
In last year’s vote, 46.6% of Irish voted “Yes” and 53.4% “No”, and the rejection of the treaty plunged the EU into political gridlock.
Opinion is thought to have swung behind the “Yes” vote this time because of the severity of the economic downturn, as well as a series of concessions the 27-nation bloc has offered to the Irish.
The Irish anti-Lisbon group Coir said on Saturday voters appeared to have approved the treaty. “We are extremely disappointed that the voice of the people was not heard the first time around,” said Richard Greene, a spokesman for Coir, which means Justice in English.
Analysts say Irish approval of the Lisbon Treaty would be a big step towards its ratification. The only other countries yet to ratify the treaty are Poland and the Czech Republic.
Prime Minister Brian Cowen – who has warned that another rejection would marginalise Ireland in Europe – was cautiously optimistic ahead of the count.
After a late surge in voting as commuters returned home from work, turnout was higher than 50% when polling stations closed at 2200 on Friday.
The BBC’s Jonny Dymond says indications are that the “Yes” campaign – backed by the government and most of the Irish establishment – appears to have paid off.
A considerable proportion of those voting said they had switched from “No” to “Yes” this time around, our correspondent says.
“The people’s decision is sovereign and of course that will be the case but I’m hopeful that in the context of today… we’ll have a good outcome,” he said.
Three million people were eligible to vote in the referendum.
The Republic of Ireland agreed to stage a second referendum after winning guarantees on key areas of policy which it blamed for last year’s rejection – such as its military neutrality, abortion and tax laws.
All of the republic’s major parties campaigned for a “Yes” vote except the nationalist Sinn Fein. The party believes rejecting the treaty would mean a more democratic EU.
The Lisbon Treaty is intended to sharpen EU institutions following the bloc’s rapid eastward expansion since 2004.
However, opponents see it as part of a federalist agenda that threatens national sovereignty.