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Europe: Voters In Northern Ireland Make Historic Vote

London, 22 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- People in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic voted in referendums today on whether to accept an agreement aimed at securing peace in Northern Ireland.

The "Good Friday' agreement was reached six weeks ago among leaders of Northern Ireland's Protestant and Catholic communities who have been locked in a bitter sectarian conflict for years.

The pact aims to end the most recent epoch of killings which began 30 years ago, and has taken the lives of 3,200 people in British-ruled Northern Ireland and on the British mainland itself.

Most of the victims died in terrorist shootings and bombings carried out by rival Catholic and Protestant paramilitary units.

The mainly Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) has waged a long campaign to end British rule in Northern Ireland and to unite the province with the Irish Republic. But the Protestant majority (who outnumber Catholics 2-1) are determined to remain British.

The sectarian strife erupted in 1969 after Catholic civil rights campaigners took to the streets of Northern Ireland's cities to protest discrimination by Protestants in jobs, housing, and schooling.

Today's referendum aims to break this logjam by creating a new Catholic-Protestant power-sharing assembly which would take over many responsibilities from the British government, and set up new cross border institutions to cooperate with the Irish Republic.

The deal -- mediated by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell -- is backed by Britain, which is tired of IRA bomb attacks on mainland cities, and by Ireland, which would get its first real voice in the north's affairs since it won independence from Britain.

President Bill Clinton, one of 40 million Americans who claim Irish heritage, has urged Irish voters to reject the men of violence and support the deal, promising substantial U.S. trade and investment.

In today's referendum, the 1.2 million voters in Northern Ireland will be asked to give a simple "yes" or "no" to one question: do they accept or reject the deal reached in the multi-party talks?

Polls show an overwhelming number of Catholics in northern Ireland support the deal. But many Protestants -- known as unionists because they want continued union with Britain -- have strong reservations, doubting that it will lead to lasting peace.

David Trimble, leader of the Northern Ireland unionists, and one of the prime architects of the deal, predicts it will win 70 percent support from Protestants. But he is accused of betrayal, and called a Judas, by hard-line Protestants who say he is selling out to the IRA.

Many Protestant hard-liners say the deal fails to guarantee the IRA militants will hand over their weapons. They are also angered by a two-year deadline set for the freeing of paramilitary prisoners, saying this allow terrorist murderers to walk free on the streets.

But campaigners for a "yes" vote counter that prisoner releases have been a key part of peace processes all over the world.

Voters in the Irish Republic, to the south, will also be going to the polls today to give their verdict on the proposed peace deal. Some 2.75 million electors will be asked if they support proposals that would formally end Dublin's constitutional claim on Northern Ireland.

The proposal, which is part of the drive to win over Northern Ireland's Protestants, is expected to win up to 90 percent support.

In the run-up to today's referendums, British and Irish politicians have urged Northern Ireland's voters to seize a historic chance for a lasting peace. Their message is that a "Yes" vote is a vote for their children, for the future. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair put it, Northern Ireland now has the chance to settle its differences through debate, not bullets and bombs.