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Europe watches as Ireland votes in polls

Dublin, Oct. 19 (Reuters): Voters in Ireland’s capital turned out in force today under the keen gaze of Europe for a referendum which will endorse or derail European Union expansion plans, but rural turnout was mixed.

Ahead in opinion polls, the “Yes” camp was hoping for a big turnout to overturn a similar plebiscite last year in which the Irish rejected the EU’s Nice Treaty with just a third of the 2.9 million electorate bothering to vote.

With three hours to go before polls close, state broadcaster RTE said in its evening news that turnout in Dublin city was 25 per cent, which officials said was higher than last time, while in some areas turnout was much higher, at up to 45 per cent.

“I think you’d have to probably have to have a particularly hard neck to vote to exclude so many people,” said lawyer Ken Fogarty, voting in north Dublin.

Elsewhere around the country, Waterford in the south had 30 per cent turnout and Limerick city was reporting 35 per cent, but voting tapered off to 20 per cent in Clare, Tipperary and the midlands and was below 20 per cent in parts of remote Donegal.

The Irish Times newspaper reported on its website (www.ireland.com) that early indications suggested between 39 and 43 per cent of the electorate would cast their ballots. The vote was expected to climb when people attended this evening’s Roman Catholic mass.

Ireland alone among the 15 EU members requires a popular vote to ratify the treaty, signed in the French resort two years ago. Unless it does so this year, the treaty will be invalid and the process of EU expansion likely to be held up for years.

Hanging in the balance is the future of 70 million eastern Europeans, once isolated behind the Iron Curtain, who after a decade of painful free market reforms are now looking forward to invitations in the next few weeks to join the Union.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern’s own political fortunes may also depend on whether he can reverse the earlier result.

“I voted ‘Yes’ because it’s the right thing to do,” he said as he voted in Dublin. “It’s a very important vote but hopefully we’ve all done enough — we’ve all worked very hard.”

Ireland sent shockwaves through Europe last year when it rejected the treaty which lays the framework for EU expansion to include a dozen new states, all of them in eastern Europe except Cyprus and Malta. The “No” vote was based on fears the treaty might infringe Ireland’s policy of military neutrality.

Ministers were embarrassed by that result and worried about losing influence within the EU, from which the Irish have reaped huge economic gains in 29 years of membership making them 20 percent better off than the European average. The government has pumped millions of euros into its new “Yes” campaign.

Polls this week put the “Yes” vote comfortably ahead, with the latest showing 42 per cent for and 29 per cent opposed.

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