reland voted in Europe's only referendum on its new fiscal treaty on Thursday, with the government waiting to see if a strong enough turnout would support opinion polls pointing to a "yes" vote that would save Europe a headache it can do without.
The referendum, Ireland's third on Europe in four years, puts it back in the spotlight after it avoided much of the recent heat from the euro-zone's debt crisis by dutifully implementing its 85 billion euro ($106 billion) EU/IMF bailout.
Every poll since the vote was called in February indicates a comfortable ratification that would ease concerns about the country's funding prospects and the euro lifted off a near two-year low on expectations of a safe passage.
However previous Irish referendums have swung on how many people vote, with a low turnout traditionally favouring the "no" side. At a polling station in the shadows of Dublin's 82,000 seat Croke Park gaelic sports stadium, the going was slow.
"I voted 'yes' because Europe are kind of the boss and we need to stick with them. I don't see any benefits of saying no," said Claudia Sculley, a 23-year-old care worker and one of only a trickle of voters who braved the mid-morning rain.
"Not many of my friends are voting but my granny told me I should always vote."
A turnout below 50 percent would give the government-led "yes" camp a sleepless night ahead of counting which begins at 0800 GMT on Friday, but analysts said it would be hard to call a pattern until closer to polls closing at 2100 GMT.
While the German-led plan for stricter budget rules needs the approval of only 12 of the 17 euro-zone countries to be ratified, an Irish rejection would undermine one of Europe's key initiatives just as problems mount in Spain and Greece.
The Irish debate has been squarely framed around a clause in the treaty stating that only those who sign up can access future European bailout money, with the country's finance minister warning a "no" vote would be a "jump into the unknown".
"What is at stake is the future of the country," Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, the European Commissioner in charge of research and science and Ireland's most senior official at the executive, told Reuters.
"It is probably the single most important referendum that we have ever had in the country. 'Yes' equals certainty. 'No' equals no-man's land," she said.
Business leaders have also warned that a rejection would put investment into the country at risk and in a sign of the modicum of stability that has returned to the economy, data on Thursday showed deposits held by Irish banks rose to a 14-month high last month.
The "no" camp, spearheaded by the rising Sinn Fein party and a small number of trade unions, say Europe will not dare cut Ireland off if, as is likely, it needs further official funding when its current bailout runs out next year.
While polls suggest the referendum has not been turned into a vote against unpopular austerity policies, opponents have tried tapping into anger at four years of austerity and the nagging sense that Ireland is no longer in control of its fate.
"It's bad economics for Ireland and for Europe. Europe needs a longer-term vision of what it wants to be and how it wants to survive," said "no" voter Aaron McDaid, a 32-year-old student who believes he will likely be unemployed when he finishes a PhD next year.
With up to 20 percent of voters yet to make up their minds, according to some polls, and figures on Wednesday showing unemployment remains at a stubbornly high 14 percent, the government cannot completely discount encountering an angry electorate at the ballot box.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny's Fine Gael party on Wednesday urged its members to contact friends, work colleagues and family members and ask them to cast their votes in favor of the treaty.
"There was a time when Irish citizens could play games with issues of enormous moment and get away with it. This time has gone," the Irish Independent, Ireland's most popular daily newspaper, said in an editorial urging a "yes" vote.
"If we vote no, our international reputation will sink to the Greek level."
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