Leading figures across Ireland and Britain have hailed Friday as a historic moment after referendum exit polls strongly suggested Ireland could soon overturn its ban on abortions.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, a vocal proponent of liberalisation, led the way, tweeting: “Thank you to everyone who voted today. Democracy in action. It’s looking like we will make history tomorrow.”
Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Tanaiste Simon Coveney, said the referendum had made him proud to be Irish. “Thank you to everybody who voted today – democracy can be so powerful on days like today – looks like a stunning result that will bring about a fundamental change for the better,” he tweeted late on Friday night.
Health minister Simon Harris, whose proposed abortion laws were subjected to intense scrutiny during the campaign, tweeted: “Will sleep tonight in the hope of waking up to a country that is more compassionate, more caring and more respectful.”
Photographs on Twitter showed campaigners hugging and in tears at the Together4yes umbrella group’s headquarters shortly after the first exit poll was published.
Justice minister Charlie Flanagan called it “another big step out of our dark past”, while the minister for children, Katherine Zappone, an early advocate for holding the referendum, said an “emotional, historic day” lay ahead.
Some “yes” politicians were already calling on the government to pass the legislation without delay following the publication of the exit polls.
Penny Mordaunt, the UK international development secretary, joined the cautious early celebrations, but noted that nothing had yet changed for women in Northern Ireland. She tweeted: “Based on the exit poll, a historic & great day for Ireland, & a hopeful one for Northern Ireland. That hope must be met. HomeToVote stories are a powerful and moving testimony as to why this had to happen and that understanding & empathy exists between generations. #trustwomen”
Abortions are legal in Northern Ireland only if the life or mental health of the mother is at risk. While political leaders south of the border were at the forefront of efforts to liberalise the law during the referendum campaign, most politicians in Northern Ireland do not favour a change in the law.
Reacting to the polls, former shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Smith, tweeted: “Wonderful news, if true. And a powerful message to Northern Ireland. We need change across the whole island of Ireland.”
Naomi Long, the leader of Northern Ireland’s Alliance party, said: “Eyes will now turn to us: yet again a place apart. Behind GB. Behind Ireland.”
Meanwhile prominent No campaigner Cora Sherlock expressed disappointment at the polls. “Exit polls, if accurate, paint a very sad state of affairs tonight,” she tweeted late on Friday. “But those who voted No should take heart. Abortion on demand would deal Ireland a tragic blow but the pro-life movement will rise to any challenge it faces. Let’s go into tomorrow with this in mind. 8thref.”