Voting Yes to liberalising Ireland’s strict abortion rules would help remove the country’s “legacy of shame” over its treatment of women, the Taoiseach said.
Thousands of women seek terminations in Britain because they are prohibited from obtaining them in Ireland unless their lives are in danger.
Residents of 12 Atlantic islands off the mainland began casting their votes on Thursday in a referendum on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the constitution which prevents the Irish Government from legalising the procedure.
The rest of Ireland votes on whether to reform some of Europe’s strictest laws on Friday.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said: “There has been in Ireland a legacy of shame in many ways.
“The fact that 170,000 women have had to travel, sometimes in secret, to another jurisdiction to end their pregnancies.
“I hope that a Yes vote will help to lift that stigma and help to take away that legacy of shame that exists in our society.”
Around 2,000 residents on islands off Counties Donegal, Mayo and Galway went to the polls on Thursday, a day ahead of the rest of the country to avoid delays in getting their votes to count centres in time.
If people vote Yes in the referendum, the Government intends to allow terminations within the first 12 weeks, subject to medical advice and a cooling-off period, and between 12 and 24 weeks in exceptional circumstances.
The Taoiseach said: “If there is a Yes vote Ireland will be the same place, just a place that’s a little bit more compassionate and a little bit more understanding than it has been in the past.”
He added: “We’re really encouraging everyone to come out and vote on Friday in what is a once-in-a-generation decision for the Irish people.”
On Friday, you will be asked: do you want to remove the 8th amendment from the Constitution, Yes or No? If you vote Yes, a safe, doctor-led, regulated system for the terminations will be introduced. It will be much much more restrictive than the UK system #PKShow— Leo Varadkar (@LeoVaradkar) May 23, 2018
Air Corps helicopters assisted in transporting ballot boxes to some of the offshore communities on Thursday.
On Gola Island in Donegal, the polls opened shortly after 11am for the 29 registered voters to have their say.
Presiding officer Nancy Sharkey and Guard Pat McElroy took the ballot box on the 10-minute boat journey over to the island and carried it off the boat, avoiding fishing tackle and passing a grotto to the Virgin Mary.
The polling station was opened in the whitewashed home of Jimmy Sweeney, 65, who has lived on the island all his life.
He said there was a lot of interest in the vote while his son Hugh, 26, acknowledged it meant a lot to young people.
More than 3.2 million people are registered to vote and thousands are travelling home to Ireland from as far away as Latin America and Asia to cast their votes.
I'm voting Yes on Friday for all the women in my life; my mum, my sisters and my female friends, including the friend who told me about her own abortion. I think they all deserve safe & compassionate care here at home. #VoteYes #Together2Vote #PKshow— Leo Varadkar (@LeoVaradkar) May 23, 2018
Aoife Bennett, 25, an editor with a travel magazine based in Dortmund, Germany, will be making the journey back to Dublin then returning in less than 24 hours.
She tweeted: “I’m flying home for not even 24 hours to vote for this. Anyone I’ve said this to hasn’t called me a muppet. Or insane. They’re thanking me.
“This is the most important referendum we may ever face. Of course I was coming home.”
The No campaign also made a final plea ahead of Friday’s vote, calling the proposed legislation “the most far-reaching abortion laws any Irish government has ever proposed in the history of the state”.