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Friday, May 22, 1998 Published at 21:48 GMT 22:48 UK

Counting begins
image: [ Turnout in Northern Ireland is believed to have been very high ]
Turnout in Northern Ireland is believed to have been very high

The polling stations in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic closed at 10pm local time on Friday after a day of voting in a historic referendum.

The British and Irish governments hope the result will help settle the differences between the divided communities in Northern Ireland.

The first indications were that the turnout was extraordinarily high - election officials estimated more than 80% of eligible voters had gone to the polling booths.

[ image: Ian Paisley: headed the No campaign]
Ian Paisley: headed the No campaign
One woman was even said to have got out of her hospital bed to vote, while police officers and electoral officials in some areas said they had never seen anything like it before.

It was the first time since 1918 that all the people of Ireland had voted in the same ballot.

An exit poll commissioned by the Irish national broadcaster RTE suggested between 70% and 75% of voters in Northern Ireland backed the agreement.

BBC Northern Ireland correspondent Denis Murray as the polls close
The same survey indicated support for the deal in the Irish Republic could have reached 95%, although exit polls have been inaccurate in the past.

RTE interviewed 1,600 voters in Northern Ireland at 90 polling stations and 2,000 voters at 150 polling stations in the Irish Republic.

The Good Friday Agreement proposes a new 108-strong assembly for Northern Ireland and cross-border bodies meant to improve cooperation with the Irish Republic.

[ image: Gerry Adams: campaigning for a Yes vote]
Gerry Adams: campaigning for a Yes vote
Under the deal, prisoners who are members of paramilitary organisations observing a ceasefire will be set free on licence within a two-year period.

The agreement also calls on those who took part in the negotiations to use their influence to persuade paramilitaries to give up their weapons.

Geoff Martin, editor of the unionist Newsletter, and Dr Arthur Aughey, a lecturer in politics, debate on Radio 4's Today
After the votes from the Northern Ireland poll are checked they will be placed in boxes, sealed by officials and sealed again by opponents of the agreement who say they do not trust the government.

Later, they will be taken under police guard to the main counting centre in Belfast and mixed up so that no sectarian trends can be identified.

[ image: Pat Bradley: monitored elections in South Africa]
Pat Bradley: monitored elections in South Africa
The whole operation will be supervised by Northern Ireland's chief electoral officer, Pat Bradley, whose reputation is such that he been asked to set up polls as far apart as Bosnia and South Africa.

Mr Bradley's dedication to his job can be deduced from the fact that he travels some 75 miles to work each day by bus before returning the same distance to his home in Londonderry in the evening.

It is thought the result in the referendum in Northern Ireland will be available on Saturday afternoon, with the outcome in the Irish Republic known later in the day.

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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Counting begins in the referendum

Republic voters also have their say

Devoted veterans of voting

Referendum Live - May 23