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N. Ireland Peace Vote: Protestants Doubt Gains

Polls show 'no' vote strong for the May 22 referendums on a deal aimed to end violence.

Win or lose, backers of the Northern Ireland peace deal are having to accept that two explosive issues will continue to provoke sectarian passions long after the May 22 referendums in both parts of Ireland.

As people prepared to vote on last month's multiparty peace deal, Protestant concerns over the planned release of all paramilitary prisoners - Catholic and Protestant - in two years' time and the Irish Republican Army's (IRA) refusal to hand in terrorist weapons threatened to blur the referendum outcome in Northern Ireland.

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Despite a plea May 18 by President Clinton for Northern Ireland voters to "think of your children" when casting ballots, the "yes" campaign appears to be in serious danger of losing momentum.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's last-minute attempts to appeal to what he called "the common sense and sound judgment" of Northern Ireland voters were meeting with stubborn resistance among Protestants.

There appears to be a prospect that, following the referendum, the Northern Ireland assembly envisaged in the peace deal would be dominated by Protestants opposed to sharing power with Ulster's Catholics, and hostile to co-operating with the Republic of Ireland to the south.

Opinion polls indicate there will almost certainly be an overall "yes" vote for the agreement, which is aimed at ending nearly 30 years of sectarian violence that has claimed more than 3,000 lives. But they also show that majority Protestants in the North will likely give the peace deal only half-hearted support.

The referendum result, says Belfast-based historian Sabine Wichert, was likely to be that "the province's Protestants will deny the British and Irish governments the level of approval needed to make the peace deal convincing and secure."

A decision two weeks before polling day to release temporarily from prison four convicted IRA murderers to attend a rally by Sinn Fein, the group's political wing, appears to have backfired, Dr. Wichert says. It alienated many Protestants who might otherwise have voted "yes."

On May 20, Mr. Blair is paying a third visit to Northern Ireland. This follows weekend calls at the Group of Eight summit in Birmingham, England, by Blair and Mr. Clinton for a solid "yes" vote. Clinton said, "If I were an Irish Protestant, which I am, living in Northern Ireland instead of the United States, I would be thinking about my daughter's future and her children's future."

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But the backdrop to the last-minute pleas was stark political arithmetic showing Northern Ireland's voters still seriously divided along sectarian lines, and many determined to vote "no" in the referendum.

What polls show

A weekend Gallup poll showed 61 percent of Northern Ireland voters planning to support the settlement, with 16 percent against and 21 percent undecided. But these apparently hopeful figures cloaked the fact that while 89 percent of Catholics said they would vote "yes," only 43 percent of Protestants intended to do so. A joint opinion survey by Belfast's two morning newspapers showed 40 percent of Protestant voters aged between 18 and 30 likely to vote against the agreement, with only 25 percent in favor. The rest were "don't knows."

With Protestants in Northern Ireland outnumbering Catholics, this appears to mean that the province's majority community is set on denying the peace deal the credibility it needs.

Opinion polls in Ireland itself, where there is a heavy Catholic majority, have indicated a comfortable "yes" vote. But it is the outcome across the border that will determine whether the peace process moves ahead to produce self-government for Northern Ireland, or runs into possibly terminal trouble.

David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the main pro-British group in Northern Ireland, supports the "yes" campaign. But Mr. Trimble has had to face opposition from his own supporters. Lord Molyneaux, a former UUP leader, has come out in favor of the "no" campaign. So, too, has Northern Ireland's influential Protestant Orange Lodge.

In a radio interview May 18, Molyneaux accused Trimble of accepting the peace deal under heavy pressure from Clinton and Blair.

Jeffrey Donaldson, a senior UUP member of Parliament who is widely seen as Trimble's "successor-in-waiting," called the agreement "unworkable."

Blair and Mo Mowlam, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, are reported to be placing hope in the 28 percent of Protestants who told Gallup pollsters they are still undecided. London-based political analyst Anthony King says this is "unusually high for such a late stage in a political campaign."

Wooing the undecideds

If two-thirds of Protestant waverers vote "yes," the overall majority in favor of the peace deal could rise to about 65 percent - enough to give the referendum result credibility. But if a similar proportion of Protestant "don't knows" decide to vote "no" on Friday, Mr. King says, cross-community support would fall well below 60 percent.

This would create a nightmare scenario for the planned Northern Ireland assembly. Ulster Unionists hostile to the peace deal have indicated that in such circumstances they would be likely to form a bloc opposed to implementing its terms.

In the "no" campaign, Ian Paisley, leader of the radical Democratic Unionist Party, has joined forces with independent unionist Robert McCartney. The Rev. Mr. Paisley, a fiery orator, has concentrated on keeping committed "no" voters in line. Mr. McCartney, a soft-spoken lawyer, has paid more attention to wooing Protestant "don't knows" in the hope that he can swing them against the agreement in the closing stage of the campaign.

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