Ulster queues up to make history
Voters turn out in record numbers
Saturday 23 May 1998
Mr Paisley made the usual noises about the agreement being a betrayal of the Union etc. But he was all rather grim - the only flash of colour was his Union flag tie with hearts and the word "NO", which had been designed by his daughter. To many present, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party was sounding like a rattle in an increasingly empty can.
Voters turned out in record numbers to exercise their rights to take part in Ulster's most important poll in 30 years. They queued up patiently outside polling stations even before they had opened.
Gerry Adams, looking statesmanlike, cast his vote in west Belfast. "Christ, another new suit!" said a Sinn Fein official as Mr Adams adjusted the knot of his red, patterned tie which went with his blue shirt and grey suit.
Mr Adams' supporters shouted his name, then he waved to them. It was quite a presidential wave. "Fifty per cent plus one is a majority," said Mr Adams. "That's all that's needed. It must be made to work. That's the challenge facing Mr Blair."
Apart from an unmarked car that cruised by, the RUC had kept away from the polling station, unlike the station where Mr Paisley went to vote.
Also present was the High Commissioner for Namibia, Ben Ulenga who, as a member of the South West African People's Organisation, had taken part in his country's liberation struggle against the forces of apartheid. He was here to observe the referendum. His view was that there would be a sizeable "Yes" vote. He had carried out his own little vox pop by walking around the streets asking people.
David Trimble voted at Lurgan, County Antrim, and then had to walk down the Shankill Road. He looked more confident and relaxed than he had for a long time, and got a warm welcome. The gloomy prognosis of a massive rejection of the peace settlement has lifted, and he was predicting that a 70 per cent majority was within reach. His deputy, John Taylor, was going for 55 per cent-plus.
One person who did not venture down the Shankill Road to be with fellow loyalists was Mr Paisley, despite reports for two days that he was going to do so. "That's another no," chuckled the Ulster Democratic Party official Del Williams. "No, I don't want to go down the Shankill, because people there will tell me where to go."
As a soldier with the Royal Regiment of Wales, Mr Williams was shot by the IRA in 1971. After 20 operations, his leg was amputated last year. He said: "If I am prepared to sit down with Sinn Fein, why can't Mr Paisley? He has never fought for his country, although he has made sure that a lot of other people did by what he said. The fact is they talk about not wanting to talk to republicans when what they mean is they don't want to talk to Catholics."
In the nationalist area of Andersonstown Road, 23-year-old Davey Corrigan, whose step-brother had served a prison sentence for arms offences, was going off to vote. He said: "I'm a republican and I don't want the Queen ruling us. But I'm certainly not going to shoot someone to make that point. I may have differences with Unionists, but we can discuss them, we can even beg to differ. The men with the guns are in the past. People are fed up with them."
At the corner of Tate's Avenue, in south Belfast, there is a new slogan on the wall showing this exasperation. It says simply: "Enough of this shit, let's have peace now, vote Yes."
t Today the National Front will be allowed to stage its first rally in central London in a decade, marching down Whitehall to present a letter to Downing Street, writes Ian Burrell, Home Affairs Correspondent.
The protest, against the involvement of IRA terrorists in the Irish peace process, has been organised by a man convicted of running guns and other weapons to Northern Ireland. Terry Blackham, now 28, was jailed for four years after guns and a grenade launcher were found in his car.
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