Ireland: TV images that said Yes

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OF THE five most powerful images in the Northern Ireland referendum campaign, two did severe damage to the Yes camp while a third may have helped provide the basis for its recovery and eventual success.

The campaign was as much of a roller-coaster ride as the rest of the Irish peace process. After a fitful start, the campaign flared into life on 10 May, when members of the Balcombe Street gang, the IRA unit which killed 16 people in England in the 1970s, were given a tumultuous welcome at a Sinn Fein conference which endorsed the agreement.

The result was a fascinating example of how Catholics and Protestants can view the same event in completely different lights. When Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and members of the gang embraced, republicans viewed the occasion as survivors of the old IRA order giving their blessing to Sinn Fein's move into politics.

But Protestants who saw the scene on television and in newspapers viewed it instead as triumphalist celebration of republican advances, a graphic illustration of the agreement's scheme for early jail releases, and a warning that the accord could mean a complete overturning of the established order of things.

By that point it had become clear that Catholic and nationalist approval of the agreement, though qualified, was near-universal. But a private government poll taken just before the gang's appearance gave a picture of Protestant opinion which was mathematically balanced but politically worrying.

It showed a three-way split in Unionist opinion with one-third for the agreement, one-third against and one-third undecided. The Balcombe Street incident shattered this curious symmetry, pushing many into the No camp.

This trend was reinforced a few days later when Michael Stone, the most notorious surviving Protestant gunman, was given a four-day pass from the Maze prison and received a rousing welcome at a loyalist rally in Belfast. Again, the message to many anxious Protestants was that the agreement meant concessions to men of violence.

The power of these images held sway for quite some time. That changed only this week, when the Dublin rock band U2 was brought to Belfast to perform before an audience of schoolchildren. Singer Bono combined with Unionist leader David Trimble and SDLP leader John Hume to form an unlikely trio.

This identification of the accord with youth seems to have had a significant effect, for around this time many undecided voters were to be heard making remarks such as: "I don't like this agreement but for the sake of the children I'll vote for it." The occasion was seen as pointing to a brighter future while the No campaigners dwelt on the past.

The U2 concert coincided with a decisive turning of the tide towards the Yes campaign. This was buttressed by two other images which, though less striking, may none the less have had a significant effect. The first was again that of Mr Hume and Mr Trimble, this time pictured with Tony Blair in a sunny garden.

The second was that of Robert McCartney MP, one of the leaders of the No campaign, seeking to engage Mr Blair in debate during a visit to the town of Holywood in County Down. When the Prime Minister was driven away, the cameras captured Mr McCartney being very effectively told off for alleged rudeness by a woman shopper.

There was, of course, much more to the campaign than these images. But each was highly charged with significance, and they certainly had their effect.