Ireland has voted resoundingly to legalize gay marriage in the world's first national vote on the issue, leaders on both sides of the Irish referendum declared Saturday even as official ballot counting continued.
Senior figures from the "no" campaign, who sought to prevent Ireland's constitution from being amended to permit same-sex marriages, say the only question is how large the "yes" side's margin of victory will be from Friday's vote.
"We're the first country in the world to enshrine marriage equality in our constitution and do so by popular mandate. That makes us a beacon, a light to the rest of the world of liberty and equality. So it's a very proud day to be Irish," said Leo Varadkar, a Cabinet minister who came out as gay at the start of a government-led effort to amend Ireland's conservative Catholic constitution.
"There is going to be a very substantial majority for a yes vote. I'm not at all surprised by that to be honest with you," said Irish Sen. Ronan Mullen, one of only a handful of politicians who campaigned for rejection.
Political analyst Noel Whelan noted that "yes" majorities were being reported even in conservative rural districts and suggested the only question was how large the "yes" majority would be when all ballots in this predominantly Catholic nation of 4.6 million are counted.
Varadkar, who personally watched the votes being tabulated at the County Dublin ballot center, said the Irish capital looks to have voted around 70 percent in favor of gay marriage, while most districts outside the capital also were reporting strong "yes" leads. He said not a single district yet had reported a "no" majority. Official results come later Saturday.
The anti-gay marriage side credited "yes" campaigners with running a creative, compelling campaign that harnessed the power of social media to mobilize young voters, tens of thousands of whom voted for the first time Friday. They also said a "no" victory was always unlikely given that all political parties and most politicians backed the legalization of homosexual unions, just five years after parliament approved marriage-style civil partnerships for gay couples.
Fianna Fail party leader Michael Martin, whose party is traditionally closest to the Catholic Church but like all other parties campaigned to legalize gay marriage, said it "looks like an emphatic win for the yes side." Voters in his native Cork were being recorded by observers as more than 60 percent yes.
John Lyons, one of the four openly gay lawmakers in Ireland's 166-member parliament, said he was surprised by how many older voters he met on the campaign trail who were voting yes. But he paid special credit to the mobilization of younger voters, many of whom traveled home from work or studies abroad to vote.
"Most of the young people I canvassed with have never knocked on a door in their lives," said Lyons, who represents northwest Dublin in parliament. "This says something about modern Ireland. Let's never underestimate the electorate or what they think."