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Northern Ireland: Referendum Decides The Future Of A Troubled Past

By Alexandre d'Aragon

Prague, 18 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Voters in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland go to the polls on May 22 to seal the future of their Emerald Isle. In an all-Ireland referendum, they will be asked to accept or reject the so-called Good Friday agreement, a fitting name for a peace settlement that promises to put an end to decades if not centuries of religious conflict. Is peace in the offing?

Twenty-two months of harsh negotiations, involving two governments (the British and the Irish) and eight political parties, have produced what most observers call a balanced agreement: an agreement that made no losers, if no outright winners, and allowed both Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists to come back with something.

The agreement is based on the consent principle, which provides that there will be no change in Northern Ireland's constitutional position without the consent of the majority of its population. Or as the chairman of the negotiations, former U.S. senator George Mitchell, more simply puts it: "the principle that the future of Northern Ireland should be decided by the people of Northern Ireland."

It is a 69-page carefully worded text that willingly aims to blur definitions and cut rough edges, so that everyone can claim satisfaction.

For Catholic nationalists, it means increased cross-border ties with the rest of Ireland, which will now have a say in the North's affairs for the first time in 77 years. It also guarantees fair political representation and decision-making in a new 108-member assembly that will in due course replace direct British rule.

The deal falls far short of unification with Ireland, the ultimate goal of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its political wing, Sinn Fein. But Catholics take comfort in thinking that if demographic trends endure, they could make up a majority of Northern Ireland's population in a couple of generations, thus paving the way for a united Ireland. Protestants currently outnumber Catholics by nearly two to one.

For Protestant unionists, the agreement means Northern Ireland constitutionally remains an integral part of the United Kingdom and that the Republic of Ireland relinquishes its claim on the six British-ruled counties. If the deal does go through, Eire's constitution will be changed to this effect. But loyalists to the British Crown had to concede some power-sharing with Irish republicans.

The British and Irish governments will also consider the early release of para-military prisoners, a very touchy issue considering the emotional impact it will have on the victims' relatives.

And political parties, that intend to join the new Northern Ireland executive, will have to undertake the de-commissioning of weapons. A commission to oversee the handover will be headed by retired Canadian General John de Chastelain. Just how it will achieve the delicate task of collecting and disposing of the warfare remains to be seen. The IRA has so far rejected any idea of de-commissioning.

These are two major points of contention that will have to be cleared along the peace process.

But for all of Northern Ireland's 1.5 million people, this agreement first and foremost represents the hope to put an end to sectarian violence, the hope for peace and quiet. The "Troubles," as they are euphemistically called, have indeed a sinister legacy: some 3,600 deaths and 40,000 injuries in the last 30 years -- not only in Northern Ireland itself, but also on the British mainland.

Yet, as Mitchell is quick to point out: "The agreement does not, in and of itself, guarantee a durable peace, political stability or reconciliation. It makes the achievement of those goals possible. But a lot of work and effort, in good faith, will be required for several years to achieve those goals."

In the end, compromise will have to prevail over intransigence. But for some, compromise equals treachery.

The biggest political parties on both sides, Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), have publicly, if grudgingly, endorsed the agreement. But there is still notable opposition to the accord, especially among unionists.

Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, which walked out of the talks when Sinn Fein joined, is leading the No campaign. And even the UUP is facing a serious split in its rank. There is fear that Britain's commitment to the region is waning.

In fact, splinter groups on both sides might attempt to derail the process. But as support grows for peace, the likes of Continuity IRA and the Loyalist Volunteer Force will feel more and more marginalized.

The fact is there's no other alternative to turn to, if the deal fails, then more violence. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has bluntly stated that his government just doesn't have any other strategy in stock in case of a No vote.

After the endorsements, attention now focuses on the content of the accord. But as Mitchell notes, outstanding issues are overshadowing the core of the agreement. "It's interesting, " he says "that during the discussions on the agreement, the institutional arrangements dominated the discussions. But the campaign is being waged on entirely different issues, and they deal with the very emotional, powerful and divisive issues of the release of prisoners, the decommissioning of weapons, what will happen with respect to policing and criminal justice in Northern Ireland."

In the final stretch to the ratifying vote, polls suggest approval of the agreement is likely by as much as 70 per cent of voters. Still, leaders don't take anything for granted. Blair headed back to Northern Ireland on Thursday, his second trip in eight days, to sell his package to reluctant Protestant unionists.

Mitchell wouldn't commit himself on the outcome of the referendum, but he nonetheless sounded some hope: "No one can foresee the future, but surely no one wants the past to become the future in Northern Ireland."

Irish Times, A summary of the agreement, with full text available at: