Ireland Still at Heart of Europe - Ahern; Bertie's Glee as Nice Treaty Is Approved by 63pc of Irish Voters

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TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern last night said a referendum decision to approve the Nice Treaty for European Union expansion had proved that Ireland was still ''at the heart of Europe''.

He also hailed the 63 per cent vote in favour of Nice - reversing an earlier poll's embarrassing shock decision to turn down the concept - as extremely important.

''It shows we remain strongly committed to the European Union - that we fully recognise that what is good for the people of Europe is good for the people of Ireland,'' he said.

Mr Ahern formally commented on the outcome of Saturday's plebiscite at Dublin Castle, the central results focal point for the big vote.

The details, confirmed last night by count officials in Dublin, were: Yes - 906,318 votes (62.89 per cent); No - 534,887 (37.11 per cent).

There was a total valid poll of 1,441,204, representing a turnout of 48.45 per cent.

The figures followed the day-long counting of votes cast manually in 35 of Ireland's 42 parliamentary constituencies. And the traditional-style poll returns were very much in line with the returns from seven other constituencies, where the electors made their choice in high-tech, electronic push-button fashion.

The votes in those divisions - all in and around greater Dublin - were counted on Saturday night and, within two hours of the close of polling nationwide, it was clear that the Yes vote had prevailed.

Mr Ahern, who arrived at Dublin Castle after watching a football clash between Ireland and Australia at Croke Park stadium - a move that prompted criticism from some opposition leaders - said his country was now in a position to ratify the Treaty of Nice and ''the truly historic enlargement of the European Union can go ahead''.

The development is expected to put on course the plans of 10 applicant states - mostly of them formerly behind the Iron Curtain - to be in the EU by 2004.

A clearly delighted Mr Ahern said: ''This decision shows above all that, as a nation, we want to welcome the people of the applicant countries into the Union with open hearts as well as open minds. …