A chance for healing the wounds in Ireland Referendums: Decisive majority of Protestants needed to get new regime off to promising start.

May 20, 1998

THE TWIN referendums on a new regime for Northern Ireland on Friday are bound to win majorities. But long-term success requires a two-to-one majority in favor among the Protestants of Northern Ireland, which is not assured. The outcome will influence the elections next month to the proposed Northern Ireland Assembly.

If the majority community -- known variously as Protestant, unionist and loyalist -- supports the plan overwhelmingly, it would then elect assembly members committed to make it work. But if half or more are opposed, they would subsequently elect assembly members pledged to create difficulties fatal to the new regime.

The support of the proposal by Sinn Fein, the political alter ego of the IRA, is enough to heighten the suspicions of insecure loyalists. Although David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, negotiated the agreement skillfully, roughly half his party's leadership joined rivals in denouncing it.

Mr. Trimble knew better than they that ordinary people want peace and an end to sectarian murder.

What alarms skeptics is the release of convicted terrorists by the British and Irish governments to help promote the "yes" vote among supporters of Sinn Fein, and the IRA's statement that it refuses to disarm. This contradicts Sinn Fein's adherence to the Good Friday agreement, which requires the "decommissioning" of all paramilitary groups within two years of the referendum. Strong vows to enforce this provision by the London and Dublin governments are designed to reassure loyalists.

In the neighboring Republic of Ireland, the referendum to amend its constitutional claim to Northern Ireland is bound to succeed. The only party with pride of authorship in the offending clauses is the governing Fianna Fail party, which wants them removed as part of its role in Northern affairs. The danger in the Republic is low turnout, which would send a negative signal about interest in closer association with people of the North.

This Good Friday agreement is the one chance the people of Northern Ireland have for a consensus on coexistence. A resounding yes vote by Protestants as well as by Catholics is in the true interest of all of them.

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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