Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

N. Ireland Peace Vote: Protestants Doubt Gains Polls Show 'No' Vote Strong for the May 22 Referendums on a Deal Aimed to End Violence

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

N. Ireland Peace Vote: Protestants Doubt Gains Polls Show 'No' Vote Strong for the May 22 Referendums on a Deal Aimed to End Violence

Article excerpt

Win or lose, backers of the Northern Ireland peace deal are having to accept that two explosive issues will continue to provoke sectarian passions long after the May 22 referendums in both parts of Ireland.

As people prepared to vote on last month's multiparty peace deal, Protestant concerns over the planned release of all paramilitary prisoners - Catholic and Protestant - in two years' time and the Irish Republican Army's (IRA) refusal to hand in terrorist weapons threatened to blur the referendum outcome in Northern Ireland.

Despite a plea May 18 by President Clinton for Northern Ireland voters to "think of your children" when casting ballots, the "yes" campaign appears to be in serious danger of losing momentum. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's last-minute attempts to appeal to what he called "the common sense and sound judgment" of Northern Ireland voters were meeting with stubborn resistance among Protestants. There appears to be a prospect that, following the referendum, the Northern Ireland assembly envisaged in the peace deal would be dominated by Protestants opposed to sharing power with Ulster's Catholics, and hostile to co-operating with the Republic of Ireland to the south. Opinion polls indicate there will almost certainly be an overall "yes" vote for the agreement, which is aimed at ending nearly 30 years of sectarian violence that has claimed more than 3,000 lives. But they also show that majority Protestants in the North will likely give the peace deal only half-hearted support. The referendum result, says Belfast-based historian Sabine Wichert, was likely to be that "the province's Protestants will deny the British and Irish governments the level of approval needed to make the peace deal convincing and secure." A decision two weeks before polling day to release temporarily from prison four convicted IRA murderers to attend a rally by Sinn Fein, the group's political wing, appears to have backfired, Dr. Wichert says. It alienated many Protestants who might otherwise have voted "yes." On May 20, Mr. Blair is paying a third visit to Northern Ireland. This follows weekend calls at the Group of Eight summit in Birmingham, England, by Blair and Mr. Clinton for a solid "yes" vote. Clinton said, "If I were an Irish Protestant, which I am, living in Northern Ireland instead of the United States, I would be thinking about my daughter's future and her children's future." But the backdrop to the last-minute pleas was stark political arithmetic showing Northern Ireland's voters still seriously divided along sectarian lines, and many determined to vote "no" in the referendum. What polls show A weekend Gallup poll showed 61 percent of Northern Ireland voters planning to support the settlement, with 16 percent against and 21 percent undecided. But these apparently hopeful figures cloaked the fact that while 89 percent of Catholics said they would vote "yes," only 43 percent of Protestants intended to do so. …

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