71%; Ulster grasps the chance of peace

By David McKittrick, Kim Sengupta, Stephen Castle and Nicole Veash
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THE PEOPLE of Northern Ireland voted for the Good Friday peace agreement yesterday with 71 per cent in favour. In the Irish Republic there was an overwhelming 94.4 per cent in support. The result brought jubilation to the Yes camp and paved the way for the creation of an administration based on cross-community consensus and power-sharing.

It was a moment for the history books: the most momentous poll since the division of Ireland in 1921 and the first time that unionists and nationalists voted as one.

At the end of a prolonged and often bitter campaign, and amid chaotic scenes at Belfast's King's Hall, the result of 71.12 per cent in favour and 28.88 against was greeted with cheers from the Yes campaigners, for the result suggested that a majority of Unionists had endorsed the agreement, together with almost all nationalist voters. Taken together with the southern Irish vote of over 90 per cent in favour, the figures mean that the people of the island have given their approval to an agreement designed to transform Northern Ireland's political structures and its relations with Dublin.

Tony Blair welcomed the result as the one "everyone has worked for and wanted. The people have said: we will resolve our differences, not by the gun and the bomb, but by persuasion and democracy, in a climate of tolerance, peace and respect". Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, said the people of Ulster "have chosen the future".

The result means that Ulster's 1.2 million voters will go back to the polling booth in five weeks' time to elect the first power-sharing administration since the collapse of the Sunningdale government of 1974. A fundamental overhaul of Northern Ireland's justice and policing systems will also follow, together with the early release of prisoners whose paramilitary groups maintain ceasefires. The thorny questions of arms decommissioning and the management of the marching season will have to be addressed as well.

Elated Yes campaigners were last night celebrating their victory, which only a week ago seemed to be slipping from their grasp after a determined push by the No campaign led by MPs Ian Paisley and Robert McCartney. The Yes campaigners believe the historic vote will lay the basis for a more harmonious and pluralistic society.

However, those who had rejected the Stormont agreement were claiming that the 28.8 per cent vote backing them showed the majority of Unionists did not support the proposed reforms and had not given their consent. This is based on the premise that the Unionist vote in Northern Ireland amounts to 52 per cent and 28.9 per cent is more than half that.

The result was a personal triumph for Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble. He said of the result: "We are now looking forward to the new assembly, where we want to create a responsive administration which will be answerable to the people's needs. There will be problems, but I believe the people have confidence in themselves and their elected representatives to see this go through."

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic had taken "a leap of faith to move the whole situation forward ... we have to deliver on that".

Mr Adams said that, in the new situation, Ulster Unionists should now be prepared to sit down and talk to Sinn Fein, but Unionist leader David Trimble said he first wanted Mr Adams to "tell me the war is over".

SDLP leader John Hume voiced gratitude to all those who voted Yes. "That was a very historic act and you are telling us to lay the foundations for lasting peace and stability."

t Irish police last night arrested two men after intercepting two cars containing bomb making materials near Dundalk, Co Louth - close to the border with Northern Ireland.