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Ulster's battle of words hots up

As the crunch nears for the power-sharing vote, Paul Routledge catches an echo of Paris '68 as Belfast students test the arguments
SOMETHING of the spirit of Paris 1968 hung in the air. Students crowded into a hot, stuffy meeting room for a debate about the future of their country and their society. They squatted on the floor, sat on the window ledges, stood shoulder-to-shoulder, sometimes craning forward to catch an aggressive sally from the lanky fellow denouncing the government.

Only this was the downtown Belfast campus of Queen's University, and the angry young man was Ian Paisley Jr, giving an only too plausible imitation of his fulminating father. He excoriated the Good Friday agreement on power-sharing for Ulster as immoral, wrong, fundamentally flawed and blackmail. The invective rolled on like thunder.

The atmosphere was not quite electric, but it was much sharper than the stage-managed appearance of Tony Blair and John Major on a platform together the night before. The questioning had a harder edge, and there was no deference to Paisley or to his fellow debater, Mark Durkan, the front- line negotiator for John Hume's SDLP. With only12 days to go to the 22 May referendum on the all-party blueprint for change in Northern Ireland, the argument is hotting up.

This being Ulster, it starts from seriously entrenched positions. Young Unionists at Queen's - cradle of the civil rights movement of the late Sixties - have rejected the power-sharing deal. Their objections were voluble. "How can you believe any pledge that the IRA gives?" shouted a young man at the back. Paisley, semi-casual in black blazer and slacks, agreed, stabbing a finger at Durkan: "He wants to keep the Provos in government."

There is just as much passion on the Yes side. "Where is your mass support, Mr Paisley?" demanded a supporter of the Good Friday deal. "Convicted murderers of the LVF attended the No campaign meeting in Portadown. You are a hypocrite." Paisley, spitting out his dislike of the agreement - "a recipe for stagnation and gridlock, and the institutionalisation of sectarianism" - advised him to wait for the outcome of the poll.

Leading Unionists are scaling down their estimate of the size of the Yes vote. David Trimble, leader of the UUP, has argued that 70 per cent support for the package he negotiated with the other parties and the British and Irish governments will be necessary to make it work.

Last week, at the party's official campaign launch, his deputy John Taylor was more cautious. "I would like to think we will get 65 per cent. If we get better, it will be a tremendous result." At present, there are too many Don't Knows to make an accurate forecast.

But in this Alice-through-the looking-glass world, figures really do count. Unionists hostile to the agreement will claim a victory if fewer than half the unionist population vote for it and the measure passes only with the support of the nationalist SDLP and Sinn Fein. They have promised to keep the No campaign going during elections for the 108-member assembly next month, and afterwards when it begins sitting at Stormont.

They calculate that under the arcane rules of the agreement, they can make power- sharing unworkable, as they did with the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974.

Meanwhile, young first-time voters cannot wait to get their hands on ballot papers, and their mood is overwhelmingly Yes. The Tony and John Show may have been weak theatre, but it brought out the sense of enthusiasm among young people. Marie Thompson, 18, a sixth-former at Our Lady of Mercy School in Ballysillan, north Belfast, said:"This is the first vote I've had, and probably the most important. I shall be voting Yes. I think people are sick of looking at the past."

In the republican community, the mood is one of bewilderment at the pace of change, but underpinned by support for Sinn Fein. Gerry Adams will tomorrow win his party's backing for participation in the new Stormont Assembly, insisting that the deal "weakens the union," a sentiment with which hard-line Loyalists campaigning for a No vote heartily concur. They are combining under the flag of the United Unionist coalition, with the slogan Have You Got A Heart for Ulster? and they claim the tide is turning their way.

There was subdued laughter in the Queen's University debate when Ian Paisley Jr predicted that the agreement would not bring peace "and if you look into your hearts, you know that is true". The laughter grew louder when he did a send-up of Gerry Adams's famous remark about the IRA, declaiming: "They haven't gone away, you know - and they will come back." As Adams conceded last week: "The IRA has made it clear that it will not surrender its weapons."

For now, Ulster's referendum is good crack, but the laughter will die down before Thursday week.