Little Sign of Compromise as Voters Choose Peace Negotiators
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Under the watch of police in bulletproof vests, Catholics and Protestants cast ballots Thursday for representatives to long-delayed talks on the future of Northern Ireland.
In neighborhoods only minutes apart but divided by years of violence and hatred, residents trudged through heavy wind and rain to vote for candidates from more than 20 parties, including former paramilitaries.
The vote will select 110 members for a Northern Ireland forum, from which smaller negotiating teams will be drawn. Each of 18 parliamentary districts will elect five delegates, and the top 10 vote-getting parties are assured another two spots each _ with one critical exception.
The British and Irish governments have barred the Sinn Fein party from the negotiations, due to start June 10, unless the Irish Republican Army resumes the 17-month cease-fire it broke in February. Sinn Fein is the outlawed IRA’s political wing.
``Sure I’d like to see a resumption (of the cease-fire),″ said Deirdre Altemeyer, a west Belfast beautician who said she voted for Sinn Fein.
``But on the other hand, we’ve already had a cease-fire and nothing ever happened _ there were no talks. So you can understand too that they’ve been cheated by the Brits and expect to be cheated again.″
Protestants want their British ties and majority position within the 75-year-old province secured in any peace settlement. Catholic leaders are just as determined that any new Northern Ireland should be linked or united with the Irish Republic, where Catholics form the overwhelming majority.
The vote count is expected to last all day Friday.
In a Protestant neighborhood, parties eager to negotiate blared pop music to woo young voters. But many voters said they backed the Democratic Unionists, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, who vows never to negotiate with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
``Paisley’ll do me just fine, aye. I’ve just been voting that way for the last lot of years. He’s not one to be pushed around,″ said Trevor McVeigh, 32.
McVeigh said he wasn’t sure what other pro-British parties were offering. But he said he agreed with Paisley’s view that negotiations should start ``after the IRA hand their weapons in,″ even though he considered that unlikely.
Strong support on the streets for Adams and Paisley illustrates the difficulty of even starting negotiations, much less reaching a peace settlement.
Several older voters leaving a polling station at Clonard Monastery said they backed Sinn Fein’s moderate rival for Catholic votes, the Social Democratic and Labor Party.
Pauline Maxwell, a day-care worker, said her grown son had been pestering her all week to vote for Adams. ``I told him I would _ but I’m certainly not,″ she said. ``I’d never vote for the IRA.″
Two small pro-British parties _ led by men once committed to killing IRA supporters but who now favor negotiations _ expect to finish in the top 10.
Billy Hutchinson, a politician representing the outlawed paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, said he thought Paisley’s refusal to negotiate could sink the whole enterprise.
``Paisley will come out of this with good votes, and if he won’t talk to certain people then it’s war again. That’s what the people who vote for him are asking for,″ said Hutchinson, who spent 18 years in prison for killing two Catholics.
The IRA stopped its campaign against British rule on Sept. 1, 1994, after killing about 1,800 people. Paramilitary groups from Protestant areas killed 900, mostly Catholics, before calling their own cease-fire in October 1994.