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Irish Protestants' Crucial Leap of Faith

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It was a reluctant but crucial "yes" the majority Protestant-Unionist community gave to the peace agreement in Northern Ireland last Friday.

"On balance, I think in my conscience I must vote 'yes.' I hope I do not live to regret it. It is a leap of faith," said Anne Slaine, a Protestant whose son, Paul, a police officer, lost both legs in an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing.

Catholics, a minority in Northern Ireland, largely saw a "yes" vote on the peace agreement as a way of achieving political change, and strongly favored it. But it was an agonizing decision for Protestants. In the end, around 55 percent of them did vote "yes."

It's only the first of many daunting challenges ahead for the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland as it seeks to create a new future for itself in a context where new relationships are going to have to be forged with people who have been bitter enemies.

A man from the Protestant heartland of Belfast, Shankill Road, expressed the tentative, downbeat kind of hopefulness felt in the majority community: "There are lots of ifs and buts, but anyway it's a bit of a start."

The sticking point for many is the proposed quicker release of terrorist prisoners.

Mrs. Slaine summed it up this way: "I look upon 'yes' as somehow letting Paul down, and those people who have suffered at the hands of terrorists who will now be able to walk the streets."

She is unconvinced that British Prime Minister Tony Blair can deliver on his guarantee that Sinn Fein will be excluded from power-sharing if the IRA fails to hand in its weapons. (Sinn Fein is the political arm of the IRA, which has used violence to try to unify Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic.)

The "decommissioning" (turning over to authorities) of weapons held by terrorists was also a significant issue during the referendum campaign and will be a major focus of attention in the campaign leading to a vote June 25 to elect members of a new Northern Ireland Assembly.

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