DUBLIN, Nov. 24 -- Irish citizens went to the polls Friday in a national referendum on whether to change the state's 1937 constitution and legalize divorce. Turnout was expected to be high, as opinion polls indicate that Ireland's 2.6 million voters are evenly divided on whether to allow divorce in the last European country to ban it. In the capital Dublin, fine weather encouraged a reasonable turnout although rain in the more westerly rural areas was thought to be deterring some voters. Pro and anti divorce groups have fought a sometimes bitter battle in recent weeks to win support from Irish voters. The last referendum on the matter was in 1986, when the Irish rejected divorce by a two-to-one majority. If citizens vote to allow divorce, a new clause would be inserted into Ireland's constitution entitling citizens to a state divorce after a couple has lived apart for four years. Opinion polls had suggested that support for a yes vote had fallen from more than 60 percent one month ago to just over 45 percent during the closing days of an increasingly bitter struggle between the liberal and conservative elements of Irish society. Ireland's three-party ruling coalition is strongly behind the move to introduce divorce, as are all the other political parties. Prime Minister John Bruton said it would be a 'personal setback' if divorce was rejected. But many commentators have said the political parties have run a poor campaign, often outfoxed by the many small anti-divorce groups which represent the views of ultra-conservative Catholics.
The politicians have asked for a yes vote on a platform of compassion, tolerance and understanding for the republic's 80,000 separated couples. The anti-divorce campaigners said that divorce will cost each taxpayer an extra 10 pounds ($16) per week to cover additional state welfare payments to deserted mothers and children. They also claimed that the introduction of divorce would encourage more couples to split. The referendum has also been presented to the Irish people as choice between living in a modern, pluralist European country or a Catholic- dominated state.