Ulster poll hides level of loyalist support

Peace referendum: Backing for deal difficult to gauge, because voting system does not differentiate between Catholics and Protestants
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The Independent Online
THE crucial question of just what kind of mandate the Northern Ireland peace agreement has will be virtually impossible to answer, because of the system of polling in tomorrow's referendum.

It does not differentiate between voting patterns of Protestants and Catholics and it will be difficult to gauge the exact level of Unionist support. The split between supporters of Ian Paisley and David Trimble is likely to have an important influence on whether a Northern Ireland assembly can work effectively. The votes cast by an electorate of 1.8 million will be counted on the basis of Yes or No, without any details emerging of whether they are Unionist or nationalist, or from Protestant or Catholic areas.

It is generally accepted Unionists make up 52 per cent of the Northern Ireland electorate. The No campaign has claimed that a rejection of the peace agreement by more than 26 per cent of the overall vote will mean more than half the Unionists are against it and it does not have their consent.

The Yes campaign started by striving to get 70 or 75 per cent of the vote across the board to counter allegations that the accord has been backed not just by Catholics, who are expected to be in favour, but Protestants as well.

The poll will also present some unique imponderables. The most obvious is that a high turn-out is expected, with many electors, mainly Protestant, voting for the first time. Such an influx can lead to a variable of 10 per cent in the result. This, say observers, will muddy the waters even more, leading competing camps to make claims and counter-claims on whether loyalists supported the agreement.

One way of discovering differences in voting between the communities would be through exit polls. But there is no history of such polling in Northern Ireland. There is another complicating factor: opinion polls have shown around 25 per cent say they are undecided. But, with the referendum a day away, most of these may have have made up their minds and are keeping their intentions to themselves. If they show similar ambivalence to exit pollsters, any predictions would be less than reliable.

Ballot-boxes will be sealed twice after voting. The No campaign wants to put its seal on them because, according to Mr Paisley, the Government has "stooped to every dirty trick in the book ... we're even going to sit and watch them all night to make sure there is no nonsense."

The result will be declared on Saturday afternoon.

Three of the parties are planning to lodge formal complaints following allegations that many people have been unfairly denied votes.

Politicians campaigning for Yes and No have said potential electors have not received a vote, despite filling in electoral-register forms.

Sinn Fein, the UK Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party are to make formal complaints to the Chief Electoral Officer.