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  The Irish Vote On Peace Accord

By T. R. Reid and Dan Balz
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 23 1998; Page A17

A huge outpouring of voters across Ireland today raised hopes among supporters of the Northern Ireland peace accord for an overwhelming endorsement of the most significant change in the governing of the island since it was partitioned in 1921.

The polls were open for 15 hours for the historic referendums on the Good Friday agreement that is designed to end 30 years of sectarian conflict that killed about 3,400 people. But officials will not begin to count the ballots until Saturday morning, with results expected in the afternoon.

The only hint of an outcome came late tonight from Ireland's RTE state broadcast network, which released preliminary results of an exit poll from selected precincts indicating a "yes" vote in the range of 70 to 75 percent in Northern Ireland. But the network qualified its report afterward by saying, "There is no experience of exit polling in Ireland," and that the polarized political landscape of Northern Ireland made the poll's predictive value uncertain.

The exit poll showed a separate referendum in the Republic of Ireland winning 90 to 95 percent of the vote.

Preelection polls in Northern Ireland showed overwhelming support -- as high as 96 percent -- for the agreement among "nationalists" -- the predominantly Catholic minority who favor reuniting the British-ruled province with the Irish Republic to the south. Support among "unionists" -- the mostly Protestant majority who want to maintain Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom -- was far more divided, though in the past few days there were indications that undecided unionists were moving toward supporting the accord.

The size of the "no" vote will give a clear indication of whether opponents of the power-sharing plan will be able to block progress in a new legislative assembly, or whether a coalition of Catholics and Protestants will be able to begin governing the region.

No matter what the ultimate outcome, it was a momentous day for the Irish people. For the first time since 1918, the residents of both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic voted on the same day following a campaign that in its final days was devoid of terrorist attacks by extremists on either side of the sectarian debate.

Polling places reported a brisk business from the first hours until late into the evening.

Paddy Kenny, who with his wife Helen was checking the voting rolls at the town hall in Dundalk, Ireland, a small town about 12 miles south of the border, said the turnout there was far above normal.

"I think people are yearning for peace, and we think it will bring peace," he said. "It will probably take a bit of time, but the men of violence will be isolated, we hope."

In the island's northwest corner, where fat grazing sheep wandered the deep green valleys and black church steeples rose toward a velvet gray sky, the day had special meaning for the politician who first proposed a single all-Ireland peace referendum more than 20 years ago.

"As days of your life go, this one is not so bad," said John Hume, 61, the founder of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, Northern Ireland's largest Catholic party and one of the chief political forces that brought the warring sides to the peace table.

Hume traveled back and forth across the Ireland-Northern Ireland border all day, from polling places in his native County Derry, in Northern Ireland, to others in County Donegal, just across the River Foyle in the Republic.

In every town, Hume called out to the friends he saw with a gentle reminder: "Have you voted aye yet?"

"I started arguing in the '70s," Hume said, " -- or was it the '60s? -- that if we ever got to the point of an agreement, then all the people, North and South, should vote on it, and on the same day.

"The most important thing about this day is that we will have a decision made by the people. Nobody will ever be able to say that this agreement was imposed by somebody else. And that takes away the traditional rationale given for the violence."

For all the expectation of a strong majority voting in favor of the peace agreement, people approached the issue with reservations and at best guarded optimism. There was no sense of euphoria in the town halls and schools where the voting was conducted. But there was a sense of this being a historic moment -- and the hope for a break from a past of hatred and division and bloodshed.

"We'll never see the end of [the violence]," said Kevin Quinn, a retired truck driver who had joined elderly friends this morning at the Ancient Order of Hibernians lodge in Newry, a Northern Ireland border town. "But the grandchildren will. They'll see a better way of life. It's for their future and for the prospects for [a better] economy."

The full day's delay in counting the votes stemmed partly from the low-tech voting mechanisms here -- people mark an "X" or punch a hole on a slip of paper -- and partly from the pervasive distrust that is part and parcel of Northern Ireland politics.

To head off challenges to the validity of the result, all of Northern Ireland's 1,228 ballot boxes will be delivered to a single room in Belfast. On Saturday morning, all of the 1-million-plus paper ballots will be counted by hand, with observers from a half-dozen parties watching to guard against fraud.

The people here were asked to cast a simple "yes" or "no" to a complex 68-page document that was agreed to on April 10 -- Good Friday -- following 22 months of fitful negotiations among eight political parties and the British and Irish governments. It calls for the creation of a Northern Ireland assembly that will give residents here the power to govern themselves, with elections for the 108-seat body set for June 25.

In addition, the agreement creates North-South institutions designed to encourage cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic in such areas of common interest as agriculture and tourism. The accord also establishes additional mechanisms to foster greater cooperation among the Irish and British governments as well as Northern Ireland and other regions of the United Kingdom.

Voters in the Irish Republic were asked to endorse two changes in their constitution that would rescind Ireland's territorial claim to "the entire island of Ireland." The six-county province of Northern Ireland was split off when the British agreed to give the 26 counties that later became the Republic their independence more than 70 years ago.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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