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Friday, May 22, 1998 Published at 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK

The people decide
image: [ The trays in Belfast waiting for the historic voting slips ]
The trays in Belfast waiting for the historic voting slips

Voters in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have gone to the polls in large numbers for the referendum on the Stormont agreement.

Pat Bradley: "Turnout will be high"
A record turnout is predicted in Northern Ireland where electoral officials were predicting a higher turnout than the 1997 General Election.

The eventual turnout could be as high as 80% of the province's 1.2m voters, with some areas registering up to 90%.

The polls close at 2200BST (2100GMT) in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Counting starts on Saturday but media organisations are carrying out exit polls which could give an early indication of the result.

Queues at polls

[ image: Voters have been turning out in large numbers]
Voters have been turning out in large numbers
Around 3,000 polling staff opened Northern Ireland's 500 stations to find some voters already queuing to have their say at the ballot box in the early morning.

Northern Ireland's chief electoral officer Pat Bradley predicted a high turnout at the stations which will be guarded by the Royal Ulster Constabulary until the ballot boxes are taken to the count.

"I've a gut feeling it will be a high turnout," he said. "Interest in this poll is quite extraordinary."

Mr Bradley expected brisk voting in the east of the province, in counties Antrim and Down.

Elsewhere, officials across the rest of Northern Ireland described the early rate of voting as varying between "brisk to a rush".

Republic voting

[ image: Pat Bradley: Young voters have been out in force]
Pat Bradley: Young voters have been out in force
Officials in the Irish Republic also predicted a high turnout among the south's 2.75m voters.

They are being asked to give their support to the republic's amended constitutional claim on Northern Ireland.

There, the polling stations opened at 0800BST and among the first to vote were Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and President Mary McAleese.

Returning Officer Barry Dobbins says postal vote applications have risen (17")
The Good Friday Agreement sets out new arrangements for the internal administration of Northern Ireland and for new cross-border bodies designed to improve co-operation between the north and south.

If the agreement is endorsed, elections will take place to a new Northern Ireland Assembly next month.

The agreement also provides for the release within two years of all paramilitary prisoners who are members of organisations observing a ceasefire.

Police escort

[ image: Voting continues until 2200BST]
Voting continues until 2200BST
A total of 1,228 ballot boxes are being used for the referendum.

Once the voting ends on Friday evening they will be removed to various centres for the votes to be verified and to ensure there are no duplicates.

After this audit they will be transported under police escort to the Kings Hall, Balmoral, south Belfast, for counting on Saturday.

Some boxes will be flown to Belfast by army helicopters.

Counting begins on Saturday at 9.00 BST (8.00 GMT).

The result is expected in the early afternoon and you will be able to watch live coverage from this site using Real Audio and Real Video.

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In this section

Polls close after high turnout

Republic voters also have their say

Devoted veterans of voting

The assembly explained

Referendum Live - May 23