If the emphatic results are correct, the Irish government will be able to legislate on allowing terminations.
The historic referendum vote will be decided by a margin of 68 per cent to 32 per cent in favour of Yes, an Ipsos/MRBI survey predicted. An RTE exit poll put the Yes campaign’s lead even higher, at 69.4 per cent.
Counting of votes will begin at 9am on Saturday, with an official result expected to be announced in the afternoon.
However, the size of the Yes campaign’s predicted lead leaves little doubt that Ireland has voted to repeal the eighth amendment 35 years after it was introduced.
“It’s looking like we will make history tomorrow,” said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who supported the campaign to liberalise Ireland’s abortion laws.
“It’s amazing,” one young woman in Dublin’s Temple Bar told The Independent after the first exit poll emerged. “It’s everything that we ever wanted, just to be able to have ownership over our own bodies and feel respected and loved and wanted.
“I hope this poll is correct and tomorrow we wake up to a new day for women in Ireland.”
Four thousand voters were interviewed for the Ipsos/MRBI survey, carried out for the Irish Times at 160 polling stations. The newspaper said the margin of error in previous surveys was 1.5 per cent.
The result of the exit poll was announced minutes after voting closed at 10pm on an emotive day which saw thousands of Irish citizens living overseas travel home to exercise their democratic right.
Among the throngs of hen nights and pub drinkers in the Irish capital’s centre, people wearing Yes stickers spoke of their delight.
“I think the Yes vote really came out this time,” said 54-year-old Dave Seacy. “People were coming in from New York and back on the same day just to vote. It was the right thing to be done. The No campaign got it wrong. The vote was for choice.”
Sophie Hughes, 28, said: “I’m happy that a load of young people voted – this seems to be the year young people finally got out there. I believe the exit poll.
“The closer it got to the vote, the more people started talking about it. This is a new day for Ireland.”
Seventy-seven per cent of voters in the Irish capital backed Yes, the highest proportion anywhere in the country, according to the Ipsos/MRBI poll.
The survey suggested the vast majority of young people voted for repeal, including 87 per cent of 18- to 25-year-olds and 83 per cent of 25- to 34-year olds.
RTE surveyed 3,800 people at 175 polling stations across the country and has a margin of error of 1.6 per cent.
If the exit polls are correct, the Irish government will be able to go ahead with plans to legislate by the end of the year to make it relatively easy for women to obtain an abortion early in pregnancy.
In 2015, Ireland voted for same-sex marriage equality with a majority of 62 per cent, but it was widely expected that this vote would be much closer.
Mr Varadkar had predicted earlier on Friday that a high turnout would be good for those campaigning for change.
The eighth amendment of the Irish constitution was inserted in 1983 to ban abortion, and at that time it was backed by 67 per cent of the population.
If this exit poll is correct, there will be a powerful symmetry between the two historic referendums, which would both have been passed by a two-thirds majority.
Photographs on social media showed campaigners hugging and in tears at the Together For Yes umbrella group’s headquarters shortly after the first exit poll was published.
Ireland’s health minister, Simon Harris, tweeted: “Will sleep tonight in the hope of waking up to a country that is more compassionate, more caring and more respectful. It has been an honour to be on this journey with you and to work #togetherforyes.”
Justice minister Charlie Flanagan said the vote was ”another big step out of our dark past”, while minister for children Katherine Zappone, an early advocate for holding the referendum, said an “emotional, historic day” lay ahead.
Ireland‘s deputy premier, Simon Coveney, another Yes campaigner, said he was “proud to be Irish tonight”.
John McGuirk, communications director for Save the 8th, which fought against repeal, conceded the tide of public opinion had turned against his campaign.
He said: “The eighth did not create an unborn child’s right to life – it merely acknowledged it. The right exists, independent of what a majority says. That said, with a result of that magnitude, clearly there was very little to be done.”
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”
In Britain, news of the amendment’s likely repeal gave hope to pro-choice campaigners for Northern Ireland, where abortion remains illegal.
UK minister for women and equalities, Penny Mordaunt, said it was a “historic and great day for Ireland, and a hopeful one for Northern Ireland”. She tweeted: “That hope must be met.”
Labour MP Owen Smith, former shadow Northern Ireland secretary, tweeted: “Wonderful news, if true. And a powerful message to Northern Ireland. We need change across the whole island of Ireland.’’ Labour MP Stella Creasy said she would “fight to make sure Northern Ireland women aren’t left behind”.
The leader of the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland, Naomi Long, said it appeared to be an “incredible result for #together4yes #repealthe8th”. She tweeted: “Eyes will now turn to us: yet again a place apart. Behind GB. Behind Ireland.”
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