Irish Referendum Campaign

On the Falls Road in the western precincts of Belfast, right in the heart of the city's Roman Catholic strongholds, there is an exclusive watering hole with a singularly appropriate name. They call the place the Felons' Club.

Irish Referendum Campaign

On the Falls Road in the western precincts of Belfast, right in the heart of the city's Roman Catholic strongholds, there is an exclusive watering hole with a singularly appropriate name. They call the place the Felons' Club. It is an imposing structure, painted bright emerald green and built like a bunker, with barred doors, slotted windows and round-the-clock video security. Like many a pub in Belfast's ever-suspicious sectarian sanctuaries, it does not make entry easy. But even by Northern Ireland's strife-driven standards, the Felons' is unique. For all of its 300 members are former prisoners, the "hard men" - and women - of the Irish Republican Army's front line. Each has served time for what the authorities call "terrorist" offences, ranging from the simple possession of a weapon to cold-blooded murder. "We're all graduates of Her Majesty's jail," acknowledges club manager Liam Shannon cheerfully as he invites a visitor to enjoy a foaming pint of Guinness. "What's more," he confides with a wink, "you won't find a blessed soul here who isn't damn proud of it."

A glance around the place on an active Friday evening confirms that much. The Felons' is as much a shrine as a pub, offering a glimpse into the warrior culture that may well play a vital role this week in deciding Northern Ireland's fate in the island-wide referendum set for May 22. The club has a traditional oak bar, busily dispensing pints at half the price they are beyond the club's well-protected confines. But the patrons down those pints beneath the assembled gaze of a long line of fallen combatants in the republican cause. "We have our Nelson Mandelas," proclaims a poster on one wall bearing the photographs of some of the 500 IRA militants currently held in British and Irish jails. On another there is a depiction of "Bloody Sunday" in 1972, when British troops fired on Londonderry marchers, killing 13. Pride of place, however, is reserved for martyred prisoner Bobby Sands, the first member of the British parliament elected from Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing. Along with nine fellow inmates at the Maze prison, he starved himself to death to support his demand to be treated as a political, rather than a criminal, prisoner. Sands and his companions smile beatifically down from a backlit stained-glass panel that would not be out of place in a church.

If there is a religious aura about the images on the walls at the Felons', it is no accident. To many, particularly the friends and relatives of the 3,500 people who have died in Northern Ireland's "troubles" over the past 30 years, the gunmen in both the Catholic and Protestant camps may be nothing more than common thugs. But that is not how they are regarded in places like the Felons'. "They're heroes," declares Shannon, an amiable 50-year-old who, in the mid-1970s, spent 4½ years in what where then barbed-wire cages at the Maze, accused of possessing explosives but never charged.

The attitude is similar a few blocks east, in the pubs and social clubs that dot the Shankill Road, citadel of Belfast's Protestant loyalists. On both sides of the sectarian divide, in fact, prisoners and former prisoners occupy a special place in Northern Ireland, not least because there are so many of them. The province has proportionately the biggest prison population in Western Europe, as well as the youngest. Even more revealing are the numbers who have passed through the system during the three decades of strife. Close to 20,000 people, in a total population of only 1.9 million, have acquired firsthand knowledge of what life is like inside Belfast's top-security Maze or behind the bars at Portlaoise in the Irish Republic or in the women's jail at Maghaberry outside Belfast. Most are back on the streets now, the activists in an entire generation inured to seemingly endless sectarian violence. And that is why, some say, it is the prisoners - past and present - who may hold the key to Northern Ireland's future this week. They are at once the best hope and the major threat to the historic peace agreement, signed last Good Friday, that voters in the North and South are being asked to endorse on May 22.

"We have to get the gun out of Irish politics," says David Ervine, one of the leaders of Northern Ireland's small but critically influential Progressive Unionist Party. "And that is no simple matter. What it requires is a change in the mind-set of those who have known nothing but the gun for the last 30 years." Ervine, a balding 40-year-old, speaks from direct experience. He was, in his youth, one of those who wielded the gun as a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force's feared Red Hand Commando. Arrested while transporting a bomb, he spent five years in the Maze. "You have a lot of time to think in prison," he reflects through a cloud of pipe smoke as he sits in the PUP's storefront offices on the Shankill Road. "I thought I was defending the status quo. But I was arrested, tried and sentenced to jail by the forces of the status quo. It dawned on me that something, somewhere was seriously amiss."

Much the same happened to a number of other members of the loyalist paramilitary groups jailed at the same time as Ervine. Today, those former prisoners comprise the core leadership and much of the intellectual strength of the PUP. Although Ervine dislikes the comparison, the party is in many ways a loyalist Protestant mirror image of the republican Catholic Sinn Fein and its relationship with the IRA.

The PUP is the public voice of the underground Ulster Volunteer Force, the largest and best equipped of the loyalist paramilitaries. The party pressured the UVF into agreeing to the ceasefire that opened the door to the painstaking two years of negotiations that eventually led to the Good Friday agreement. It played a vital role in helping to stitch that accord together. And it is currently working to keep the UVF's guns holstered, a role that Ervine spends much time and energy performing. "The idea," he says, "is to keep all of these fellows boxed into the democratic process."

The task is not simple, in large part because of the nature of the Good Friday agreement. It was purposely designed to soften the sharp edges of the old divide in Ulster between the republicans' desire for a united Ireland and the loyalists' determination to maintain the province's union with the rest of the United Kingdom. As a result, it is a document that Anne McCann, a member of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, which helped draft it, describes as "a bit like the Bible, in that you can read just about anything into it that you might want to see there."

Republicans can point to the creation, envisaged in the agreement, of a powerful cross-border executive as the first step in forging tighter links between Northern Ireland and the republic to the south. Loyalists can look at the proposed British-Irish Council, grouping Northern Ireland's proposed elected assembly with similar bodies in Scotland and Wales and the existing British and Irish parliaments, as measures to cement Ulster's place in the United Kingdom. The majority Protestant unionist community is reassured by changes to the British and Irish constitutions, enshrining in law the concept that none can decide Northern Ireland's future save the voters in the province itself. And the Catholic nationalists are placated by the structuring of the new assembly to prevent majority votes overriding the rights of their minority, now about 45 per cent of the population.

Given the depth of the passions after 30 years of unremitting sectarian strife, there may well have been no other way to reach an agreement. But that cannot alter the fact that the electorate is being asked to choose between two diametrically opposed interpretations of what the Good Friday agreement actually means. "It's a quandary," admits Alex Atwood of the mainstream, predominantly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, whose leader, John Hume, is widely credited with being the original architect of the agreement's underlying thrust. "When the votes are counted," predicts Atwood, "I think you'll find that the Catholics will have followed the advice of their political cardinals. The unionist camp is deeply divided, however. There are no cardinals in the Protestant political church."

As the referendum campaign winds towards its close on both sides of Ireland's borders, there is every indication that Atwood's assessment is accurate. Voters in the republic appear prepared to endorse the required changes in the Irish constitution while the Catholic electorate in the North seems headed towards a resounding Yes vote backing the Good Friday pact.

Sinn Fein paved the way on May 10 during a tumultuous gathering in Dublin, when 1,400 delegates at a party ard fheis - convention - overwhelmingly agreed to abandon their long-standing refusal to take seats in any "partitionist" assembly in the North. It was a historic move for republicans, amounting, in effect, to a decision to pursue the cherished goal of a united Ireland through political, rather than military, means. It was also a ringing endorsement of the leadership of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, the party's chief negotiator during the peace talks. "Today, we cleared the way for the future," declared an exuberant Adams at the convention's end. "Tomorrow, we start to build the future. The future is freedom."

While Sinn Fein's political leadership may have won a victory, the party's convention in Dublin only served to underscore the difficulties facing Ulster's Protestants. In an effort to woo Sinn Fein's delegates, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlan decided to grant temporary leave to some two dozen imprisoned IRA militants to allow them to attend the ard fheis. Among those freed were the four members of the infamous Balcombe Street Gang, who killed 16 people and planted more than 50 bombs during a 14-month reign of terror in London in the mid-1970s. When the gang, each of whom is serving multiple life sentences, turned up, the delegates inside Dublin's Royal Society hall went wild. The prisoners were given a 10-minute standing ovation, hailed as conquering heroes and warmly embraced by Adams and McGuinness. "These are remarkable men," enthused Adams, "our Mandelas."

The reaction north of the border was different. The PUP's Ervine described it all as "shameful street theatre" that damaged the Yes campaign, while Ulster Unionist Party Leader David Trimble complained that Mowlan had shown "no sensitivity for the views of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland." For Trimble, whose career is riding on a Yes vote, Sinn Fein's performance in Dublin amounted to yet another problem in a campaign that has not gone well from the start.

The leader of the largest unionist party in the north cannot complain about a lack of help. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has twice visited the province during the campaign, once in the company of former Conservative PM John Major, in itself something of phenomenon. Last week, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown arrived in Belfast carrying a $360-million package of aid and development. Saatchi and Saatchi, the London-based public relations firm that helped propel Blair to power, has donated its expertise to the Yes campaign and Belfast's business community has chipped in another $360,000. Even the Boy Scouts are onside, with one Catholic movement and one Protestant deciding to merge in a symbolic effort of support.

Still, Ulster's Protestants remain doubtful. An unofficial Northern Ireland office poll on May 14 put the Yes vote at 59 per cent, the No at 18 per cent and the undecideds at 19 per cent. More ominously, a May 15 survey carried out for the Irish Times showed support in the North for a Yes had fallen by 17 percentage points, to 56 per cent, since a similar poll last month. It put the No strength at 25 per cent. The 72-year-old firebrand Rev. Ian Paisley, a fading but still formidable campaigner, has been working on the undecideds, travelling around Northern Ireland deriding what he continuously refers to as "Trimble's sellout."

The Protestants' hesitation appears to be fuelled by three major concerns. Many do not relish the idea of Sinn Fein gaining a seat on Northern Ireland's proposed cross-border executive. Many also do not believe the IRA will ever hand over its weapons to Canada's former top soldier, retired general John de Chastelain, the official in charge of the "decommissioning" process laid out in the Good Friday pact. And many would agree with Colin Jameson, a resident of the fiercely sectarian town of Portadown, who is bothered by the planned release within two years of IRA prisoners. "It just doesn't seem right," said Jameson, 43, as he stood rocking a stroller bearing his infant son on Portadown's Market Street. "They're bullies and murderers. They always were, always will be." Maybe so. But when the votes are counted this week, that may turn out to be one of the prices of peace.

Maclean's May 25, 1998