Ireland Votes for Peace

Even before the polls opened, the telltale signs of seismic change began to drift across Northern Ireland's rolling green hills.

Ireland Votes for Peace

Even before the polls opened, the telltale signs of seismic change began to drift across Northern Ireland's rolling green hills. It was there early on Friday morning, in the long lines of voters waiting patiently under overcast skies for the doors to open at some 584 schools, churches and community halls in the province. It grew more palpable later in the day in places like Belfast's Shankill Road, when a beaming David Trimble was heartily welcomed, even congratulated, by the residents of the stoutly loyalist Protestant neighborhood. And it was finally confirmed on Saturday afternoon when, beneath the same leaden clouds, the referendum ballots were counted, revealing that an overwhelming majority of the island's voters want a peaceful end to Ireland's bloody sectarian wars. "They voted for the future," proclaimed a jubilant Mo Mowlam, Northern Ireland secretary of state in the British government. "They voted to take the gun out of Irish politics - north and south of the border."

To all but a few loyalist diehards, the referendum's results amounted to a resounding victory for the architects of the agreement that, after two years of often painful negotiations, was signed on April 10, Good Friday. More than 80 per cent of Northern Ireland's 1.2 million voters trooped to the polls, the largest turnout for an Irish referendum in 250 years. They endorsed the Good Friday agreement by a wide margin, with 71.1 per cent voting in favor of the 68-page document. South of the border, the turnout was smaller, with only 60 per cent of the Irish Republic's 2.7 million eligible voters casting ballots. But the level of support for the agreement was even more commanding - no less than 94.4 per cent voting Yes. "It signals a sea change in the way Irish politics are conducted," said political scientist Sydney Elliott of Belfast's Queen's University. "What the people are saying is that, after 30 years of living with violence, they want something new. Now, it's up to the politicians to provide it."

That is certainly going to be no simple task. For the Good Friday agreement is a complex, sometimes contradictory affair, a reflection of the compromises that had to be worked out between the two governments and the representatives of the six separate political parties who signed it. It envisions a new 108-member Northern Ireland elected assembly with built-in provisions to protect minority rights, a new 12-member executive, new cross-border administrative bodies to manage joint projects between northern Ulster and the southern republic, and the establishment of a Council of the Isles, grouping the two Irish governments with the British government in London as well as the emerging regional elected administrations in Scotland and Wales. "Nobody said it was going to be easy," admitted British Prime Minister Tony Blair as he welcomed the referendum's results on Saturday. "But at least we have now taken a giant step along the path to a settlement."

The next step occurs on June 25, when Northern Ireland's voters will again be asked to go to the polls, this time to elect the proposed assembly. The members of the new assembly will be chosen by a complicated form of proportional representation modelled on Belgium's system of a single transferable vote. Each of the province's 18 existing electoral constituencies in the British House of Commons will select six members to the new regional parliament. And that is the principal reason why the margin of the referendum victory was viewed as critical by the supporters of the Good Friday agreement. "We went into this requiring the support of the majority in both the Catholic and Protestant communities," said Trimble, leader of the mainstream Ulster Unionist party, shortly after the referendum's results were announced. "Now, we have it."

The results tend to support Trimble's view. While there is no accurate way of assessing the breakdown of the vote since ballots were tallied provincewide, it does seem clear that, as expected, nationalist Catholic voters massively endorsed the agreement. "The best estimates put the No vote in the nationalist community somewhere between three or four per cent," said Queen's University political scientist Elliott. Based on Northern Ireland's last three elections, when nationalists accounted for roughly 40 per cent of the total vote, that would indicate that a clear majority of the Protestant unionists also backed the agreement. If the upcoming June 25 election mirrors the referendum's results, then the chances are good that Northern Ireland's electorate will return members dedicated to making the new assembly work.

There are, however, pitfalls along the way, none more difficult than those posed by the Rev. Ian Paisley. In the wake of the referendum, the fiery 72-year-old leader of the Ulster Democratic Unionist party, second largest in the Protestant community, was not ready to concede defeat. "A majority of unionists have voted against Trimble's sellout," he claimed, pointing to the 28.9-per-cent No vote. "We only needed 26 per cent to have a majority of unionists in our camp," he asserted, "and we certainly exceeded that."

Whatever the accuracy of Paisley's calculations, the abiding fear is that, come next month, the reverend and his allies in the unionist community will win enough seats in the new assembly to wreck it. Given the proposed assembly's delicate system of checks and balances, it would not require much obstruction to bring the whole structure tumbling down - or at least make it unworkable.

But Paisley is not the only hurdle. Judging from the comments of many No voters on referendum day, there is widespread concern in the Protestant community over the continuing refusal of Sinn Fein's leadership to unequivocally declare that the Irish Republican Army's gunmen are soon going to holster their weapons. "I wanted to vote Yes and I almost did," said Kevin Rafferty, 50, a railway worker, as he emerged from a polling station last Friday afternoon at the upper end of the Shankill Road. "But I'll be damned if I'm going to do that until those boys in the IRA give up their guns."

Gerry Adams could make life easier for Trimble's unionists with a word or a gesture. But the Sinn Fein president once again dodged the issue as he stood amid the hubbub last Saturday at Belfast's Kings Hall while the referendum's ballots were being counted. "The only guns you see on the streets now belong to British soldiers," he remarked. "That's the issue that we have to tackle."

British PM Blair has attempted to ease unionist fears by promising to enact legislation that will make it impossible for anyone to take seats in the Northern Ireland assembly or serve on the body's executive who belongs to an organization that has refused to disband and disarm. It was Blair's handwritten pledge, delivered on the heels of a pro-Yes, U2 rock concert in Belfast last week that is widely regarded as one of the turning points of the entire referendum campaign. But Canada's Gen. John de Chastelain, chairman of the international body charged with overseeing the "decommissioning" of the arms now in the hands of the IRA and the Protestant paramilitaries, admitted last week that he has yet to receive a single bullet. "We're ready to take arms from anybody who wants to give us them," said de Chastelain. "But it takes two to tango."

Despite the concerns about the future, however, it was, as Blair remarked, "a day of joy" in both Northern Ireland and the republic. For the first time in close to 80 years, the Irish electorate on both sides of the border had voted together. And together, they had opened the prospect of momentous change. Given the savage history of "the troubles," as the Irish euphemistically call the last 30 years of bloodshed, it was reason enough to celebrate.

Maclean's June 1, 1998