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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com
Still Divided Northern Ireland's Uneasy Peace


A resounding vote for Irish peace

Embrace of historic referendum could clear way for resolution

By Kevin Cullen and Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff, 5/24/1998


Saturday's official results of the referendums on the Belfast peace agreement, held Friday in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Votes in excess of 50 percent ''yes'' were required in both parts of Ireland for ratification:


  • YES: 676,966 votes, or 71.1%
  • NO: 274,879 votes, or 28.9%
  • Turnout: 81% of an eligible 1.2 million.


  • YES: 1,442,583 votes, or 94.4%
  • NO: 85,748 votes, or 5.6%
  • Turnout: 56.3% of an eligible 2.7 million.


    BELFAST - Speaking with one voice for the first time in 80 years, the people of Ireland, north and south, overwhelmingly supported a political settlement that could pave the way for a peaceful sharing of the island and end one of the world's most intractable conflicts.

    In Northern Ireland, 71 percent of voters approved of the settlement, while in the Republic of Ireland, 94 percent of the electorate backed it. Overall, about 85 percent of voters in the separate referendums supported the agreement.

    The referendums were held Friday, but the votes were counted yesterday.

    Approval of the settlement reached on Good Friday by the British and Irish governments and most of the northern parties clears the way for June 25 elections to a 108-seat assembly that, for the first time, would include the leaders of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. It was that prospect, and the release of IRA prisoners as part of the settlement, that led many Protestants to oppose the deal.

    But a slim majority of Protestants voted for the settlement. They seemed to have been reassured by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who visited here three times in as many weeks to counter claims that the IRA and other paramilitary groups would not be expected to give up weapons before their prisoners are released and their representatives take seats in local government.

    The referendums marked the first time since 1918 that there was an all-Ireland vote, and the first time that people on both sides of the border created in 1920 agreed with each other on how to address the longstanding dispute over whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or become part of the Irish Republic.

    Under the settlement, the north will remain part of Britain until a majority living there votes otherwise. In return, the Irish government will have a voice in areas of mutual interest such as agriculture, energy, and education. The settlement also calls for the release of some 400 paramilitary prisoners and their disarmament within two years.

    While many commentators were describing as historic the overwhelming endorsement of accommodation on an island where compromise has proved elusive, there were no scenes of jubilation on the streets, north or south. People seemed to acknowledge the deep divisions that remain and the difficulties that lie ahead in creating political dialogue where there was none.

    ''This is just the beginning,'' said Terry Foyle as he walked his dog in West Belfast, a neighborhood that has seen much of the violence. ''I don't think anyone has illusions about the hard work that lies ahead. There are still a lot of people who don't want this to work.''

    Despite attracting only 29 percent of the vote, leaders of the anti-settlement campaign claimed victory by insisting that a majority of Protestants had voted against the agreement. ''We got the majority,'' the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the opponents, bellowed inside the King's Hall in Belfast, where the ballots were tallied by hand.

    But Paisley was heckled by Protestant loyalists, who 24 years ago helped him destroy the last serious attempt to return local government here. Today, they are outspoken supporters of the compromise that will put them in a government with the Catholics whom they previously murdered in an attempt to undermine support for the IRA.

    ''See ya later, you dinosaur!'' one loyalist yelled at Paisley.

    There were bitter exchanges between unionists who supported the settlement and those who opposed it. But most suggested it was time for unity.

    ''The future beckons,'' said David Ervine, the loyalist leader who emerged from prison believing that political accommodation, not violence, was the way forward.

    The British and Irish governments hope that the resounding endorsement will marginalize extremists on both sides. But police on each side of the border were busy last night in security operations showing that despite the referendums, some people will continue to use violence.

    Irish police arrested two men and seized a car filled with explosives near the border with Northern Ireland, while police defused a mine left in Armagh. Both devices are believed to be the work of Irish republican dissidents who view the settlement as a sellout.

    While turnout in the south was less than 60 percent, northerners showed that after enduring 30 years of violence, they were determined to participate in the first referendum that asked them how they wanted to resolve the conflict. About 80 percent of eligible voters in Northern Ireland took part - the biggest turnout in any election since Northern Ireland was created.

    When Pat Bradley, the chief electoral officer, announced the results, he was drowned out by rejoicing pro-settlement campaigners who burst into a soccer chant of ''Here we go! Here we go! Here we go!''

    Twenty-four years ago, a similar attempt to share power between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists collapsed because there was little support for the deal in the Protestant community. But yesterday's tally showed that a majority of Protestants backed the compromise reached after two years of negotiations and 30 years of violence that killed more than 3,500 people and injured 40,000.

    The results came 200 years to the day that a group of revolutionaries called the United Irishmen, led by Presbyterians but including Catholics, marched off to their doom in an attempt to overthrow British rule in Ireland.

    But if the failed campaign of the United Irishmen demonstrated the futility of violence - even on the rare occasion when Protestants and Catholics were united in purpose - yesterday's result showed the potential for power sharing between the divided communities.

    ''People voted their hopes, not their fears,'' said Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader who took considerable risks to lead the republican movement away from violence into the political arena.

    Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, whose party represents most Protestants, was beaming after the votes were counted. He had fought a mutiny in his ranks, and he may have been forced to resign had support been under 70 percent.

    After the results were announced, some of Trimble's party vowed to continue to oppose the settlement. But a key dissident, Jeffrey Donaldson, stood with Trimble and promised to respect the will of the majority.

    Trimble said he believed that about 5 percent of the ''no'' vote came from dissident republicans. This would mean that more than a slim majority of Protestants had approved the accord.

    ''It's a very clear, convincing majority,'' he said. ''I would have liked it to be stronger on the unionist side, but it is a safe basis for progress.''

    John Hume, the nationalist leader who is arguably the chief architect of the settlement, said the Irish people had spoken as one.

    ''They have said they want an end to violence and a beginning to accommodating the diversity on our island,'' Hume said.

    Blair, whose stewardship of the peace process with his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, was essential to the agreement, also hailed the results.

    ''I believe this is another giant stride along the path toward peace and hope in the future,'' he said. ''There's still a long way to go, but at least we're getting there.''

    Ahern was beaming after the results of the southern referendum were announced in Dublin Castle, the former seat of British administration in Ireland.

    ''It's a very good day for Ireland, north and south,'' said Ahern, who had campaigned vigorously for the deal. He called the vote a ''historic watershed between a past riven by political division and a new future based on mutual respect, concord, and agreement.''

    But he added that some still need convincing: ''I hope that those parties who opposed the agreement will now abide, in the true spirit of democracy, with the verdict of the people.''

    In the Irish Republic, voters willingly abandoned their territorial claim over Northern Ireland, a compromise essential to the settlement. They voted to amend their constitution to define the Irish nation as consisting of its people, not its land, and that people born on the island could choose to be British or Irish.

    Approval rates were high even in republican strongholds in the south. In Kerry, for example, some 93 percent of voters approved the referendum. Not one of Ireland's 41 district results dipped below 92 percent. In one section of Dublin, four ballot boxes contained only ''yes'' votes.

    Not all were thrilled with yesterday's results.

    ''For most here, Northern Ireland is an imaginary place,'' noted Conor Cruise O'Brien, an author and member of the UK Unionist Party. He predicted that disputes over the decommissioning of paramilitary arms would sink the deal, probably during next month's assembly elections.

    At a Dublin cemetery, mourners gathered to mark the anniversary of the 1994 death of Martin ''Doco'' Doherty, killed by loyalist paramilitaries at a Sinn Fein party in a Dublin pub. All were struck by the irony that the anniversary fell on the day the referendum ceding Ireland's claim to the six counties in the north was approved.

    ''We are getting sold down the river with this agreement,'' said Ben Doherty, the dead man's brother. ''This is very disrespectful for those in their graves, who fought and died for their country.''

    Despite the history made yesterday, reaction was muted in much of the Irish capital. Passage of the referendum had been predicted, and even the overwhelming margin by which it passed left few here surprised. Scores of Dubliners were paying far more attention to the Ireland-Mexico soccer match.

    In Belfast, where the Troubles have had far more impact on the daily lives of people, there was a sense more of relief than euphoria.

    ''It's a chance,'' Maureen Lester, 63, said, standing outside a building on the Shankill Road that was bombed by the IRA in 1993, killing nine Protestants and an IRA bomber. ''I think we have a long way to go before we learn to live with each other, but this gives the young people a chance, to do better than we did.''

    On the nationalist Falls Road, no one was celebrating as they did when the IRA called its first cease-fire in 1994.

    ''I think people realize this is only the beginning,'' said Martin Farrell, as he took his 4-year-old daughter for an ice cream.

    The first obstacle could be Northern Ireland's divisive marching season, during which Protestant fraternal organizations parade to celebrate their heritage and commemorate battles in which they defeated Catholics. Most of the 3,000 parades pass without incident, but some have led to violent confrontations the last few years.

    The first major confrontation could come in July, when the Orange Order tries to parade through a Catholic neighborhood in Portadown, 35 miles southwest of Belfast.

    But yesterday, many of those who have spent the past few years of their lives searching for a chance for ordinary people to express their desires through the ballot box said it was time to savor the moment.

    ''The people have spoken,'' said Martin McGuinness, once an IRA leader and now Sinn Fein's chief negotiator. ''Let's enjoy the moment, and let us respect their wishes and start a real dialogue.''

    This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 5/24/1998.
    © Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.