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In Two Towns, a Slow Shift of Divided Opinion

The British Army base towers over the market square in Crossmaglen, a town about six miles from the border with Ireland. When an Army helicopter takes off, shoppers in the center of this County Armagh town stop their conversations mid-sentence until the deafening noise abates.

There is no visible evidence in Crossmaglen that in a few days time, people will vote on the peace agreement that the British and Irish governments argue offers the best chance of lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

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When asked their views on the accord, most people are well aware of its contents. Tim Murphy, a local farmer, gestures to the Army base. "There is no agreement here, and that's why I'll be voting 'no' in the referendum," he says.

Mr. Murphy says he opposes the violence that has marked Northern Ireland's recent history. He attributes his negative stance in the May 22 referendum to "30 years of hassle from British soldiers with their checkpoints and low-flying helicopters."

Yet such views are not echoed by many in this mainly Catholic area, where Ireland's green, white, and orange flag flies from nearly every lamppost.

Maire MacManus, another resident, says, "There's been a sea change in opinion among nationalists [who want union with Ireland]. There has to be change and the agreement is the only way of getting real peace."

Every second Thursday the red-and-yellow bus of the Crossfire Trust comes to Crossmaglen. Julie Gotwell and her colleagues are Christian preachers working along the border region between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. A supporter of the peace deal, Ms. Gotwell says her group "hears from both sides of the community and we're surprised that so many are determined to say 'no.' That shocks me."

The evidence picked up by Gotwell has come through in recent opinion polls - "Catholics are more in favor," she says. "It's the Protestant culture which is saying 'no.' They think it [the agreement] is too one-sided."

The apprehension of the pro-British unionist community is evident in Moira - a predominantly Protestant town in County Down, southwest of Belfast. In the past, Moira has won several "tidy town" awards for its appearance, but now displays the scars of a recent bomb attack by dissident Catholic terrorists who are not observing the cease-fire. About two-dozen houses near the site of the explosion are still boarded up as the cleanup from February's bombing continues.

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Georgina Crooks, the postmistress in Moira, says her Protestant customers are very unsure, and she "wouldn't know yet what way the referendum vote will go." Asked to explain why Protestants are undecided, Mrs. Crooks shrugs her shoulders and says, "Everybody wants peace, but then you see the boys who do wrong from both sides getting out from prison while nobody's interested in us, the law-abiding citizens."

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