Whatever the outcome, referendums changing Ireland
By David Clinch
May 22, 1998
In this story:
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- The people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were making history Friday, voting -- in separate referendums in this divided land -- on whether to unite their island.
Ahead of Friday's vote, polls on both sides of the border indicated the landmark agreement, supported by the Irish and British governments as well as most political parties North and South, would be approved.
It required a simple majority to pass. In the Republic, the predictions were for wide support. But the final margin in Northern Ireland was less clear and promised to be a significant factor in the success of the agreement.
'Yes' -- maybe, but enthusiasm counts
"Yes" campaigners on both sides of the border were aiming for 70 percent approval.
To be certain most of the North's Protestant majority supports the deal, the overall majority in favor throughout the British province needed to be that high, according to experts with whom I spoke in Belfast.
Any less, and some Unionist politicians, who claim the agreement gives an unacceptable role to the Irish Republic in the running of the North, suggested they would take it as a mandate to disrupt the Northern Ireland Assembly that is to be elected after a "Yes" win.
(If a majority in the North vote "No," the agreement would be void and no elections for an Assembly could take place.)
The main Unionist parties all have some members and supporters who intended to vote "No," despite their leaders' campaign for a "Yes" vote.
The smaller Unionist parties leading the "No" campaign claim their traditional allies in the larger parties have been duped into accepting a deal that weakens Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom, and gives a political role to Republican "terrorists" and the government in the South.
The main Unionist parties defend their support for the agreement by stressing the promises they have received from British Prime Minister Tony Blair that Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, will not be allowed to take part in the governing of Northern Ireland until the group gives up its weapons.
They also emphasize that a "Yes" vote in the Republic of Ireland will formalize the Irish government's commitment to remove any claim to Northern Ireland from its constitution.
That constitutional claim that Northern Ireland is part of the Republic has been a key reason Unionists have previously refused to give the government in Dublin any say in what happens in the North.
Removal of the claim is being hailed by Unionists on the "Yes" side as a major achievement that would enshrine the principle of "consent" at the heart of the new government of Northern Ireland, and keep the North British.
Referendum makes new bedfellows
On the individual level, ahead of Friday's vote, I found it difficult to get a real sense of the way in which people in Northern Ireland planned to vote.
Many were reluctant to reveal their political allegiances or their voting intentions. Politics has always been a subject to avoid in the streets of Belfast.
But there was also a new feeling of personal responsibility among people I spoke with, which reflects a desire to vote as an individual rather than as a Catholic or Protestant, or a supporter of any particular party.
Most Catholics in Northern Ireland describe themselves as Republicans hoping for a united Ireland. Most Protestants describe themselves as Unionists who want to remain part of the United Kingdom.
There are, however, many shades of Unionism and Republicanism, with people on both sides prepared to compromise.
For years, extremists on both sides have used violence to deny moderates the opportunity to work together. Cease-fires have created a new atmosphere, and allowed parties with links to the militant groups into the peace talks that led to the agreement.
A large "Yes" vote would allow the moderates to come together in the new elected Assembly that gradually is to assume many government functions in Northern Ireland.
But it is not just moderates who are on the "Yes" side. Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party (which is linked to the extremist Loyalist Volunteer Force) also campaigned for a "Yes" vote.
Still, moderates on both sides want these parties to be denied seats in a new Assembly until their militant allies declare their cease-fires permanent and give up their weapons.
A division that's not traditional
The problem of weapons decommissioning, and the prospect of hard-line Unionist Parties determined to disrupt an assembly, mean Northern Ireland is likely to face years of political wrangling.
But the sight of Unionist and Republican politicians campaigning on the same side for a "Yes" vote, to most of the people with whom I have spoken in Belfast this week, is in itself a concrete achievement of the peace agreement.
To them, political wrangling is a lot better than bombs and guns.
The threat of violence has diminished but not disappeared. Some breakaway militant groups on both sides have not declared cease-fires. And the IRA and the main Loyalist militant groups are still heavily armed.
Suspicions remain high on all sides in Northern Ireland after decades of violence and hundreds of years of British rule in all or part of Ireland.
But the divisions that have always been drawn along religious lines, between Catholic and Protestant communities, appear to have shifted, temporarily at least.
The new division is between those who see a "Yes" vote as either a vote for peace or giving them some political advantage, and those who see a "No" vote as rejecting an agreement that would put them at a political disadvantage or create conditions for further violence.
Whatever the result, in giving the people a chance to express themselves independently from religious and political traditions, the agreement and the referendums already have changed the political environment in Northern Ireland beyond recognition.