The people of the Republic of Ireland are voting today in the country’s general election.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern asked the President to dissolve Parliament at the end of April.

The result of today’s poll is expected to be very close.

Mr Ahern’s Fianna Fail party has been in coalition government with the Progressive Democrats for ten years, but was expectd to lose to a Fianna Gael/Labour coalition.

However, the Prime Minister has seen a late surge in support and may be re-elected for a third term in office.

Gay marriage has been an issue in the elections for the 166-seat Dáil Éireann.

Earlier this year an attempt by the opposition Labour party to bring forward legislation was blocked by the government.

A Bill was debated in the Dáil in February and was well received by all political parties.

The government argued that the proposed Bill was vulnerable to constitutional challenge and that it should be postponed pending the outcome of an appeal to the Supreme Court.

The government promised to bring forward legislation to protect the rights of all unmarried couples, gay or straight, after the election.

In April 2006 Mr Ahern insisted his government was committed to legislation by the next election, echoing a previous statement made to the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN).

He told the Gay Community News magazine:

“Ireland needs to legislate to provide a stable and supportive legal framework for same sex couples. That is the path this Government is now embarked upon.

“It is our aim to make as much progress as possible on legislation to be enacted before the election next year.”

Homosexuality was only decriminalised in the Republic of Ireland in 1993, but since then the country has embraced gay rights.

Both discrimination and incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation are illegal.

A recent opinion poll found 84% in favour of some sort of recognition for lesbian and gay couples.

The survey of nearly 1,200 gay and lesbian people’s voting intentions was carried out last year for scene magazine GCN.

20% of respondents said they would vote for the Labour party, and 16% for the Greens.

Ireland’s complex PR voting system means it could be several days before the result is clear, and that will be followed by weeks of negotiations between the parties before a government is formed.