Europe sweats on Irish poll verdict

DUBLIN: Counting takes place Saturday in Ireland's second referendum on the EU's Lisbon Treaty, with the country tipped to have voted Yes, averting an institutional crisis across the continent.

The count gets underway across the republic at 9:00 am (0800 GMT), with the first figures expected late morning and the full result likely by mid-afternoon.

The Yes camp was set for a comfortable win according to exit polls conducted by the main opposition party.

A sample of 1,000 voters conducted at 33 polling stations showed a decisive swing away from the No camp, a Fine Gael spokesman told AFP.

"The poll shows the yes vote ahead by around 60-40," the spokesman said.

"We are looking at a huge turnout in Dublin and a big Yes vote in Dublin."

He said the poll results showed that in some areas of Dublin the Yes vote was as high as 70 percent.

"This is a very encouraging finding for the Yes side," said lawmaker Billy Timmins, Fine Gael's elections director, according to The Irish Times newspaper.

"It is a tribute to... all the efforts of the Yes campaign."

Ireland's three main parties -- the governing Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour -- backed the treaty. Sinn Fein was the only major party opposed to the treaty.

Ireland's three million voters are the only ones among the European Union's 500 million citizens to have a referendum on the treaty, which is aimed at simplifying decision-making in the expanded 27-nation bloc.

Ireland delivered a stunning blow to the EU in June 2008, when voters rejected the reform treaty by 53.4 percent.

A second No vote could scupper the accords, painstakingly crafted through years of negotiation.

However, opinion polls suggest the Yes camp is set to win comfortably this time, with voters likely to have been swayed by their fears of battling the sharp recession while cast on the fringes of the EU.Related article: Irish EU chief confident

Leaders across the continent are watching the poll anxiously. Most want an end to the constitutional paralysis in the EU since last year's Irish No vote.

Officials in the country's 43 constituencies will first remove seals from the ballot boxes. They will check the number of papers inside against figures tallied at the polling stations, before counting up the Yes and No votes.

The local numbers are then forwarded to the count centre in Dublin Castle to be compiled.

Cowen, who voted near his home in County Offaly, central Ireland, said he was cautiously confident of a Yes camp victory.

"It's an important day for the country and an important referendum," he said, according to the Irish Examiner newspaper's website.

"The people's decision is sovereign and of course that will be the case but I'm hopeful that... we'll have a good outcome."

A total of 3,078,032 Irish citizens were eligible to vote.

Reports said turnout was around 50 percent across the country. Turnout in the 2008 referendum was 53 percent.

Irish bookmaker Paddy Power made a Yes win the 1/25 overwhelming favourite.

The final opinion poll before the vote, in the Sunday Business Post newspaper, put support for the treaty at 55 percent, with 27 percent planning to vote against.

There were concerns that some voters would use the referendum to kick Cowen's increasingly unpopular government over the spectacular collapse of Ireland's long-booming "Celtic Tiger" economy.

Ireland is the only EU country constitutionally obliged to put the treaty to a referendum. Of the 27 EU states, Poland and the Czech Republic are the only others yet to ratify it.

Dublin agreed to hold another poll after securing guarantees on key policy areas which it felt were behind last year's rejection, such as its military neutrality, abortion and tax laws.

Even if Irish voters back the treaty, further obstacles remain.

In Prague on Friday, the Czech constitutional court ordered President Vaclav Klaus -- who in any case is a fierce opponent of the Lisbon Treaty -- to hold off signing it into force.

The Irish result is also being closely watched in Britain where opposition leader David Cameron, tipped to win elections due by next June, has pledged to hold a referendum if Lisbon is not ratified when and if he takes power.