BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Battle-weary voters in Northern Ireland and the southern Irish republic gave strong approval to the Northern Irish peace accord yesterday, according to an early exit poll.
The referendum received a 70 percent to 75 percent yes vote in Northern Ireland, with 25 percent to 30 percent voting no, according to the exit survey of 1,600 voters taken three hours before polls closed in the historic ballot.
Ninety-nine percent of Roman Catholics voted yes in the north, according to the survey, commissioned by Irish television network, RTE.
Protestant voters split 50-50.
The deal received 95 percent support in the south, according to the survey in which 2,000 voters in Ireland were interviewed.
Despite the exit polls, the official outcome in the referendums won't be known until today when the ballots are tallied by hand.
Still, there was an air of expectancy across the island as the ballots were cast.
"It is an appointment that the Irish people have with history," said Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.
For many who trooped to the polls, the verdict was never in doubt from the moment that the British and Irish governments and eight local political parties agreed to the April 10 accord that was designed to end decades of division and violence.
"At long last, peace is coming," said Terry McCann, a 38-year-old fruit importer who cast hisballot in Armagh, near the border. "Hopefully, everyone will get together and make this a good country."
Day of decision
For more than 1 million eligible voters in the north and 2.7 million in the south, it was a day of decision like none other in generations.
They lined up early to vote in Belfast neighborhoods that once echoed with gunfire.
They waited patiently to cast their ballots in Dublin, the showpiece of Ireland's booming economy.
There were no reports of disturbances, as Northern Ireland's polls were guarded by heavily-armed members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
By comparison, unarmed police stood watch at polls in the south.
Voters were judging a deal that seeks to bridge political differences between majority Protestants, many of whom want Northern Ireland to remain part of Great Britain, and minority Roman Catholics, who mainly seek a united Ireland.
The agreement envisions establishment of a locally elected, 108-member assembly to govern Northern Ireland, which is ruled from Britain's Parliament in London.
It also sets up new bodies to link the north and south.
Voters in the north checked off a simple yes or no on the agreement. Voters in the south were asked to approve Ireland's amending its constitutional claim over the six northern counties that make up Northern Ireland.
It was the first all-Ireland voting since 1918.
Spotlight on the people
But the spotlight was firmly on Northern Ireland's people, hopeful that ballots could change the course of their lives.
"I can't wait to get to the next stage. It's like the darkness has ended. We've got life again," said Catherine Darragh, 32.
Darragh was among the voters in Armagh, a divided city dominated by imposing cathedrals dedicated to Ireland's patron saint, St. Patrick. One is Catholic; the other is affiliated with the Protestant Church of Ireland.
During Northern Ireland's terrorist troubles, this city was often a powder keg where sectarian violence flared in working-class neighborhoods.
But, at one of the polling places, the Mount St. Catherine's School, the students tried to offer a brighter face for the future, adorning their entrance hall with paper flowers and a simple sign: Peace.
"To be truthful, I've had enough of the Troubles," said Paul McKenna, a 39-year-old telephone engineer who voted yes. "It's about time we moved forward. How this will work is another thing. People are still out to stop the agreement."
Jean Corrigan, 64, whose husband and son were among those killed in the violence that has claimed more than 3,200 lives during the past three decades, said, "I like the thought of peace coming."
At a Protestant school in another neighborhood, opinion was more divided.
Maureen Crowe, 33, a Protestant, voted no, angered that Northern Ireland's leading Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, cut a deal.
"My own group has betrayed us," she said. "I just don't trust them."
FTC Hard feelings were expressed in the Protestant heartland. Last year, Markethill's tiny center was devastated by a bomb planted by a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army.
"It's definitely no around here," said William Frazer, a 38-year-old whose father, two uncles and two cousins were killed in the troubles. All were members of local security forces.
"I'm going to have to say to my son that people who killed his grandfather are now in government," he added.
'Sense of betrayal'
Portadown, often a scene of violent clashes between Catholics and Protestants during the height of the so-called marching season, also appeared to say no to the agreement.
"If we pass this, they're going to let the terrorists out of prison, and the killing will start again. There is a sense of betrayal around here," said Noell MacDonald, who was handing out No leaflets to voters flocking to the Sir Robert Hart Memorial School.
Some people sought to give the peace deal a chance.
Among them were Aubrey McCrory, 53, a member of the Protestant-dominated Orange Order that stages a contentious parade celebrating the 1690 Battle of the Boyne.
"The people who have been saying no to this agreement have been telling us the same thing these last 30 years," he said.
"They said we've been sold out," he added. "But we're still here."
McCrory's wife Yvonne, 53, also voted yes.
"It's still a bit of a leap for me," she said. "It's ingrained for unionists to say no. We've had these troubles for years. We've paraded. We've protested. It doesn't seem to do any good.
"It's time for a change."
Pub Date: 5/23/98