In Ireland, a vote to forgive A nation is asked to lay violence to rest

May 22, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- As an act of remembrance and forgiveness, Marie Close will vote "yes" today when an Ireland united by the ballot box stages a referendum for peace.

"I don't think a 'yes' vote will stop the killing. But I have to do it," said Close, a Roman Catholic whose husband, Trevor, was killed by a Protestant paramilitary as he delivered milk in one of Belfast's most dangerous neighborhoods in May 1983.

Close isn't alone in her pain and mixed emotions as voters give their verdict on the historic Northern Irish peace accord. While voters in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are expected to approve the agreement, the ballots won't be counted until tomorrow.

Wrenching decisions will be made in the privacy of a voting booth by those such as Close, one of tens of thousands of victims and survivors of the long conflict in Northern Ireland.

"I know forgiveness comes with time. You have to do it," Close said, sitting in a church that has been converted into a survivors trauma center in the rugged neighborhood of Cliftonville, where more than 300 were killed over nearly 30 years.

An entire society is being asked to make peace with a bloody past and approve an agreement that was forged April 10 by the British and Irish governments and eight local parties under the chairmanship of former Sen. George J. Mitchell of Maine. The deal spells out a new political future for Northern Ireland, six counties that are part of Great Britain. It seeks to bridge aspirations and to provide a means of sharing power between majority Protestants, most of whom favor union with Britain, and minority Catholics, many of whom seek a united Ireland.

Northern Ireland, now governed from Britain's Parliament in London, would gain a 108-member local assembly. The agreement also envisions new links between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

But mostly, the accord is designed to bury religious divisions that triggered a terrorist war that led to more than 3,200 deaths in Northern Ireland's gritty cities and small towns set amid rolling, green countryside.

In a place such as the Cliftonville-area trauma center, the death toll remains vivid; the list of those murdered covers a bulletin board. The murders are so recent, two new names must be added to the list.

In this area, Catholics and Protestants live side by side, a mix that led to some of the worst violence of the period known as "the Troubles." And the neighborhood remains a place of heartbreak, as those touched by violence try to put their lives back together.

"Who do you get angry at? Do you start hating the world? You can't," said Brendan Bradley, the community activist who oversees the center. Bradley lost five family members to the Troubles -- a brother, a sister, an uncle, and two nephews. But he won't let the past prevent him from grasping peace.

"I'll be voting yes," he said. "The reason I will is my heart tells me to. But my head tells me people are trying to squirm out of the deal. All the double talk doesn't bode well. But I want to vote for it."

The politicians made one last try yesterday at convincing the voters the deal is good for all in Northern Ireland.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared with two of the agreement's architects, David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists, the leading Protestant party, and John Hume of the Social and Democratic Labor Party, the mainstream Catholic party.

Those in the "no" camp kept up a persistent drumbeat of dissent against the agreement.

"Stand up for your heritage and say no," said the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. "I'm confident that the majority of unionist people in this country will be saying a very loud no."

Critics of the deal have railed against the accelerated release of terrorist prisoners, the lack of a firm commitment to hand over terrorist weapons, anticipated reforms of the local police force // and the establishment of cross-border political bodies linking the north and south.

"People say that if you vote 'no' you're a war-monger," says Mark Wilson, a 32-year-old who lives in mid-Ulster, a Protestant heartland.

"We're all for peace. But not at this price, not at surrender to the Irish Republican Army." Wilson said. "We've fought the IRA for peace. Should we just all lay down now? No way will I bow to them. No way."

Despite their loud protests, the "no" campaigners don't expect to win. But they are trying to short-circuit the deal and will likely carry their case into the new assembly. They claim that if they can gain 26 percent of the vote, they will show that Protestant unionists have effectively voted against the referendum. Protestants constitute three-fifths of Northern Ireland's voters.

Politically, Trimble is walking a tight-rope as he tries to hold his fractious party together after five of its members of the British Parliament came out against the deal.

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