Voting Under Way on N.Ireland Pact
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ After three decades of bloodshed and six weeks of bitter bickering, Northern Ireland’s campaigning politicians fell silent today to give voters their say on the Belfast peace accord.
Every opinion poll has pointed to approval when ballots are counted Saturday in both Northern Ireland and the neighboring Irish Republic, where voters were being asked to drop their country’s constitutional claim to the British-ruled north as part of the historic agreement.
Majority ``yes″ votes in both parts of Ireland would clear the way for implementation of the agreement on Northern Ireland’s future. It was struck April 10 among the British and Irish governments and eight northern parties.
``Anything for peace,″ said Deborah McCarron, after casting a ``yes″ vote at the polling station at St. James’ Primary School in Creggan, a mainly Catholic district of Londonderry.
Alistair Simpson voted no. The leader in Londonderry of the Apprentice Boys, a Protestant fraternal order, described the vote as a ``a sellout.″
``It’s a first step to a united Ireland and we won’t have it,″ he said.
The agreement calls for an election June 25 in Northern Ireland to select an 108-member Belfast legislature from which a 12-member administration would be drawn. Decisions would require both Protestant and Catholic support.
Polls project that the Irish Republic’s 2.7 million voters will easily endorse an agreement that won’t affect their daily lives much. But up north, the outcome among 1.2 million registered voters is expected to be close _ most pivotally within the province’s Protestant majority.
Pat Bradley, Northern Ireland chief electoral officer, said he expects more than 80 percent of the province’s registered voters to go the polls, which would be a record turnout.
At some of the 500 polling stations across the province, people formed lines even before voting started at 7 a.m. local time.
Many Protestants reject the entire deal on the grounds it would give IRA-allied Sinn Fein a role in the new Belfast government and allow early paroles for imprisoned members of the Irish Republican Army, which has observed a truce since July 1997.
However, the Ulster News Letter carried an unequivocal message today for its largely Protestant readership. ``Say `yes’ and say it loud,″ declared the front-page headline.
In Dublin, John Feery, voted for the agreement after finishing his overnight shift at a bakery.
``It’s about time the politicians decided to compromise,″ he said.
Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who has seen party colleagues defect to a vociferous ``no″ camp led by two other Protestant parties, took on his two most damaging critics in televised BBC debates Thursday night.
His encounter with the Rev. Ian Paisley degenerated into an ugly shouting match. The demagogic Democratic Unionist leader taunted Trimble as someone willing to destroy Northern Ireland’s 77-year-old union with Britain, and called his negotiation of the agreement ``an act of treachery.″
But Trimble insisted the agreement offered much to Protestants, and had roped Sinn Fein into a new political arrangement that would force the IRA to disarm eventually or be wiped out by British and Irish security forces.
``What I have done in the last 2 1/2 years is to give the people of Northern Ireland a chance. And what Ian is doing is going to let Sinn Fein-IRA off the hook!″ Trimble said on one of the rare occasions when the Protestant evangelist didn’t interrupt him.
Trimble had a more reasoned debate with Bob McCartney, whose small United Kingdom Unionist Party has lent intellectual muscle to Paisley’s bruising brand of politics. McCartney, one of Northern Ireland’s top lawyers, chided Trimble, a former university law lecturer, as someone who ``has never argued a case in his life.″
Watching the Protestant bloc tear itself apart has been Sinn Fein and its moderate rival for Catholic votes, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which both are encouraging ``yes″ votes.
Sinn Fein activists used white sheeting to spell out ``WE SAY YES″ on the hillside overlooking Catholic west Belfast.
Since Catholics represent about 40 percent of Northern Ireland’s population, support from only the most moderate section of Protestant opinion will be required to achieve approval.
But British Prime Minister Tony Blair put monumental effort into reassuring as many Protestant voters as possible, making three trips here and campaigning in predominantly Protestant areas Thursday.
Blair shied from making any predictions. Trimble said he expects to achieve more than 70 percent approval, while Paisley and McCartney both promised that a majority of Protestants would vote no.