DUBLIN — Ireland's voters have agreed to ratify the European Union's deficit-fighting treaty with "yes" votes reaching nearly 60 percent, according to election officials citing substantial unofficial results. Leading Irish opponents of European austerity conceded defeat.
The treaty's approval, to be declared officially later Friday, relieves some pressure on EU financial chiefs as they battle to contain the eurozone's debt crisis. But critics said the tougher deficit rules would do nothing to stimulate desperately needed growth in bailed-out Ireland, Portugal and Greece nor stop Spain or Italy from requiring aid too.
"The 'yes' side is going to win. The question now is where will the jobs and the stability they have promised come from, against the backdrop of a continuing and deepening capitalist crisis within Europe? Their policies will only make the situation worse," said Joe Higgins, leader of Ireland's Socialist Party, which opposed the treaty.
Unofficial but full tallies of results from virtually all 43 of Ireland's constituencies suggested a decisive victory for the government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny, which courted unpopularity by insisting that Ireland — already four years into a brutal austerity program that has slashed 15 percent from many workers' incomes — had no choice but to vote in support of yet more cuts and tax hikes.
Kenny and Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore, his coalition partner in Ireland's 15-month-old coalition government, planned a joint victory statement on the steps of their office.
Pro-treaty votes were clearly outpolling "no" voters in at least 35 constituencies, while the anti-treaty side pulled ahead in just one part of Dublin and the northwest county of Donegal, a bastion of euroskepticism. The official result was scheduled to be announced Friday night in Dublin Castle.
Unofficial results produced by "tallymen" — activists from several parties who are permitted to eavesdrop on the official ballot-counting and make their own rapid-fire calculations — documented a stark class divide in how Ireland voted.
The pro- and anti-treaty votes appeared split down the middle in most working-class urban districts, with the toughest housing projects in northwest Dublin recording the loudest "no" of 62 percent. Votes also appeared evenly split in County Louth, a power base for the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party on the Northern Ireland border.
But on Dublin's prosperous south side, the suburban port of Dun Laoghaire voted 72 percent for the treaty, Dublin South 66 percent in favor, and the middle-class suburbs of Dublin and the other major cities of Cork, Galway and Waterford all voted around 60 percent or more for the treaty. And significantly for the national outcome, turnout was much higher in those more affluent districts.
Overall, about half of Ireland's 3.13 million registered voters participated in Thursday's referendum, typical in an officially neutral country that is constitutionally required to hold a referendum on each European treaty.
Public rejection could have blocked Ireland from receiving new EU loans once its 2010 bailout money runs out next year. It also would have sent political shockwaves through other eurozone members, where anger against austerity and bank bailouts runs similarly high but citizens are denied the chance to vote on the treaty.
As the day's ballot counting commenced, Kenny offered a cautious welcome for the early results and declined to declare victory.
"I'm hopeful for a strong 'yes' vote. The early trends would indicate a strong run in favor of the 'yes' vote," said Kenny, who rose to power on a platform promising to pull Ireland out of recession, minimize the cost of bank rescues, and get the country borrowing normally again on bond markets by next year. During his pro-treaty campaign he warned that rejection would mean even worse austerity, because Ireland would suffer more credit downgrades and lose its key EU source of funding.
The treaty, signed in February by leaders of 25 countries including Ireland, proposes that all members who ratify it should reduce their annual deficits to no more than 0.5 percent of gross domestic product. The current eurozone limit is 3 percent of GDP. Ireland is committed to cutting its way back to that level by 2015.
Opponents of the treaty argued that the new 0.5 percent deficit limit would force Ireland to keep cutting until perhaps 2020, when greater state investment to stimulate the economy was required. The government countered that much would depend on whether Ireland could keep growing its economy against the tide of austerity.
Ireland has recorded a faint pulse of growth over the past year thanks to strong exports by nearly 1,000 foreign high-tech companies based in Ireland. But the domestic economy, with unemployment stuck on 14.3 percent and hundreds of thousands of households mired in negative-equity mortgages, has shrunk for four straight years.
Ireland has posted the EU's worst deficits since 2009, including an EU-record 32.4 percent in 2010 and 13.1 percent last year. Both figures were greatly inflated by the exceptional costs of Ireland's decision to nationalize five of its six banks rather than see any collapse — a debt burden that pushed Ireland itself into the bailout zone in 2010. Repayments to international bondholders, central banks and interest on decades-long loans are expected to cost Ireland's taxpayers €68 billion ($85 billion), equivalent to €19,000 ($23,500) for every man, woman and child.