It's time to live in the real world

As tension grows in the run-up to Northern Ireland's referendum, a 'yes' vote is far from certain
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IN THE village of Kiltyclogher, on the border between County Leitrim in the Irish Republic and County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, all is tranquil during these warm May days. People are keener to start conversations with a visiting stranger about the local salmon, trout and pike fishing than about politics - a subject which most greet with a cheerful shrug.

In four days' time, voters in Ireland north and south will vote in an historic referendum on the Good Friday multi-party agreement which might - just might - bring the prospect of peace. But few of the inhabitants of Kiltyclogher seem bothered about this Friday's vote.

In the village of Scribbagh - a mile and a world away from Kiltyclogher - the outcome of the referendum will have a very tangible effect. Last weekend there was an attempted mortar attack on an RUC station a few miles to the north of Scribbagh; then mortar launchers were discovered in a trailer near a burnt-out car a few miles to the south. The prospect of violence here remains part of daily life. "All we can do is hope," is a typical response.

IN THE Irish Republic, the peace deal is attractive, but at one remove. A monument to republican heroes stands at the centre of Kiltyclogher, and an annual gathering in their honour will be held today. But most people are not directly affected by the violence, nor do they feel the "lack" of the six counties to which they have theoretically laid claim for so long.

Nor is this just a matter of rural remoteness. In cities in the south, conversations about the referendum are rarely infused by distrust, in contrast to the north. At a rally in Sligo on Thursday night, there were few tough questions - and a general acceptance that, in the words of one speaker, "if anyone's suggesting that we could have had an agreement without constitutional change - that's not the real world".

Polls confirm that opinion is currently running at more than 70 per cent voting yes on Friday, with only 5 per cent against. In Kiltyclogher, and elsewhere in the Republic, the vote is almost one for altruism. In Scribbagh, they may be near-neighbours, but the people come from a different world. Like all the north-south border crossings, the border between the two villages is curiously unmarked. Not, however, that it has been an open border in the intervening years. The bridge across the dividing stream was only rebuilt last year. The British had blown it up - despite much local indignation - in an attempt to prevent arms smuggling by the IRA.

On the northern side of the border, society is on the verge of enormous change. But it is still unclear which direction the change will take. With the luxury of hindsight, we reshuffle historical events - in our minds, and in the history books - so that everything seems to have led Inevitably to a clear-cut final result. Like an old-fashioned Hollywood movie where victory is predetermined, tensions and dramas come to seem mere blips along the way.

History in the flesh is not so clear-cut. The most extraordinary thing about events in Northern Ireland in recent days and weeks is how close everything came to falling apart. After the Good Friday deal was achieved, hindsight made it seem inevitable. But it was not. In the same way, the prelude to this week's vote will be fraught - and the result unpredictable - until the very end.

Among the nationalists, many have been reluctant to agree to a deal that seemed to neglect their most cherished goal, the achievement of a united Ireland. Under the agreement, the Republic of Ireland will delete the articles in its constItution which claim the whole of Ireland as national territory. At its special conference last weekend, Sinn Fein approved the deal. But groups such as the Continuity IRA and the "Real" IRA refuse to contemplate compromise.

The fact that Sinn Fein has finally signed up for the deal is like Catch- 22 because it makes many loyalists feel that if the nationalists approve, there must be something wrong. "Sell-out" is in the air. The triumphal appearance of IRA prisoners from the Balcombe Street gang at a Sinn Fein rally last weekend, released, in order to boost the republican yes-vote, caused enormous anger among unionists, and among some Catholics in the south too.

The appearance at a Protestant rally in Belfast a few days later of the notorious killer Michael Stone, who had opened fire on mourners in a Belfast cemetery in 1988, may have provided some kind of symmetry, but it did little to assuage the widespread anger at the Sinn Fein performance.

Tony Blair flew to Belfast on Thursday to try to persuade recalcitrant loyalists into the yes camp. Jeffrey Donaldson, a key dissident in the Ulster Unionist camp, retorted on Friday that he was still "unable to accept" the deal. Mr Donaldson may yet change his mind, but if he stays put, the omens are not good.

An opinion poll for the Irish Times on Friday showed 45 per cent of all voters in Northern Ireland either against the agreement or undecided. So far, so worrying. Amongst unionists, however, only a third declared themselves in favour. In the south, the proportion of those in favour of the deal has risen steadily. In the north, unionist support has dropped sharply. As one worried businessman from Athlone in the Republic noted: "My fear is a very positive vote in the Republic - and a weak majority in the north. That would create negative feelings, from the people who voted against and feel excluded. And what would happen then?"

David Trimble, once widely seen as Mr Unreasonable, now tries desperately to badger his fellow unionists into a yes vote. Posters in the mostly Protestant town of Portadown quote Trimble's much-repeated assurance: "The union is safe." Underneath comes the stinging retort: "So was The Titanic." The fear that the union can still be sunk is widely voiced. In mixed (but divided) Dungannon, one Protestant woman declared: "They're selling us out to the 32 counties". With a remarkable insistence that everything is still up for grabs, she declared that if unionists vote no, Catholics may look for further compromises. But nationalists and unionists feel they have compromised as much as they can, and a bit more.

IN THE Irish Republic, this week's referendum on the peace agreement is combined with a referendum on the Amsterdam treaty - on the further strengthening of the European Union. For some Irish voters, the European yes vote is more of a wrench than the yes vote on the constitutional changes forced by the peace process, which most seem ready to assent to almost on the nod.

In Ulster, the possibilities are illustrated in terms of road signs. "Yes" is the white arrow on a blue background - the only road to take. "No" is shown as a cul-de- sac. But no-voters remain sceptical and many loyalists are still ready to convince themselves that they have nothing to lose.

But, gingerly, more people may be starting to believe that positive change might be possible. Like Raymond, a 31-year-old Protestant from Dungannon, who said: "I'll definitely vote. But I don't know which way. I'd love to see peace. If I thought there would be peace, then I would vote yes." More confidently, Noreen Conlan, a 42-year-old community worker, declared: "It's the only way forward. I'm a Catholic. But I think for the sake of the Protestants, we have to give some things up. Things are on the move."

In five, 10 or 20 years' time, people in Northern Ireland may look back to these days of May 1998 and recall an historic breakthrough. Or they may shake their heads at the naivete of those who believed that this time would be different from all the "breakthroughs" that preceded it.

In the south, the script does not alter, but in Northern Ireland it changes every day, and the people are reinventing the ending as they go along.