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Belfast Celebrates Spring and Peace

May 23, 1998

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Despite a gloomy sky and frigid wind, festival-goers at Belfast’s spring fair were glowing Saturday: Peace, they cheered, had finally come.

In mid-afternoon, the news flashed across the harborside fairground that 71.1 percent of the voters in Northern Ireland had said ``yes″ to a historic accord for a new government formed by Protestants and Catholics.

``I’m over the moon,″ said Robert Fogarty, a Catholic at the festival. ``In my heart, I always knew it was going to be higher than the 60 percent the polls predicted.″

Sam Crozier, a fellow Catholic listening to a pop band belt out Irish folk songs, said, ``I’m hoping this will be the start of a new era. Anything is better than the past 30 years.″

Still, people here have seen peace initiatives come and go, and few were entirely free of skepticism that Friday’s vote would really end a conflict that has claimed 3,400 lives in the past 30 years.

``The `yes’ vote is wonderful, but the test will be whether the new assembly can be made to work,″ said property developer Michael O’Sullivan, a Catholic.

His Protestant girlfriend, Melanie Williamson, said people cannot help but wonder whether the leaders of the Catholic and Protestant parties can really work together.

``Right now, we don’t know what we have said `yes’ to,″ she said. ``Will they fight?″

O’Sullivan is bitter that, when he was a child, his working-class parents were denied state housing because they were Catholics. ``But I’m ready to say, `Let the past go and, from now on, let’s have power-sharing and equality,′ ″ he said.

``Which will be a miracle to achieve,″ Ms. Williamson added.

David Greenwood, a Protestant policeman, was among the few not celebrating Saturday. He called the agreement a complete cave-in to the Irish Republican Army-allied Sinn Fein party.

``The majority who have voted `yes’ have been suckered in,″ he said. ``Sinn Fein have said this is just the first step to their goal of a united Ireland. So the terrorists have won.″

Sixty miles northwest of Belfast, in the mainly Catholic town of Greysteel, residents began applauding late Friday as soon as exit polls foreshadowed the outcome.

``It had to be a `yes,‴ said Bobby Murphy as he sipped a pint Saturday in the Rising Sun pub, where on Oct. 30, 1993, pro-British gunmen opened fire, killing seven people. ``Things could not go on as they were.″

But in the staunchly Protestant Fountain district of Londonderry, Rosemary Holland was not amused.

``I predict disaster,″ she said, angrily reaching for her cigarettes and with one eye on her three sons sprawled in front of the television set in the family’s tiny apartment.

``It won’t work _ you’ll see. They should have listened to Paisley,″ referring to Ian Paisley, the leader of the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party who urged a ``no″ vote on grounds the deal weakens Northern Ireland’s links with Britain.

But Sister Aloysius McVeigh, a 73-year-old Catholic nun who teaches painting to underprivileged children in central Londonderry, said the ``yes″ vote would reduce the sectarian tensions she has fought all her life.

``We need to get to know each other, to understand each other,″ she said.

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