Leading Article: Fears are real, but still vote `Yes'

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The Independent Online
THE PEOPLE of the island of Ireland have been granted few opportunities to purge their politics of sectarian poison. The referendum today will provide them with just such a chance. By voting for the Good Friday agreement, they will take the next step on the road to making Northern Ireland a place that can live at ease with itself and its neighbours. It is important for the voters on both sides of the border to keep faith with that vision. But it is equally right to recognise what a "Yes" vote cannot achieve. People should vote "Yes", but with their eyes open.

Today's is not a simple vote for or against "peace". A "Yes" vote cannot deliver a permanent and complete cessation of violence. Since the signing of the latest agreement, there have been bombs, killings and punishment beatings. The so-called Real IRA is in business, ready to maim and murder. There will remain for some time a level of terrorist violence which is not tolerable but which will have to be tolerated. It is what terrorists sometimes call, in their warped language, "strictly modulated military activity". But this is nothing on the scale of the violence we would see if the agreement foundered. So while the Prime Minister has said the Government will be even tougher in the campaign against terrorists who reject the agreement, we have to realise that terrorism will not be eliminated altogether.

But even as the Government gets tough with the Real IRA and others, we should be clear that a "Yes" vote will also mean that the release of convicted terrorists will be speeded up. When the Government temporarily released the Balcombe Street gang and the Milltown cemetery murderer to attend triumphalist rallies it made a serious error. Instinctive revulsion was widely felt. It placed the settlement in the balance. But there will be more shows like that and they, too, will have to be endured, no matter how stomach-churning they may be. The fact that the Prime Minister has assured us that prisoners will be released only "on licence" and that "if there is any reoffending then they will come back inside" is a small palliative. Vote "Yes" but know that it entails some offence to victims and to natural justice.

The one thing that those who do vote "Yes" today have a legitimate right to expect is not to see the face of Gerry Adams or Martin McGuiness on their television screens above a caption reading "Minister in the Northern Ireland Government". Mr Adams, Mr McGuiness and their allies in the IRA have not renounced violence. If they had done so then the size of the "Yes" vote today would be in far less doubt. The Prime Minister has recognised this fear and explicitly promised that nobody who is engaged in terrorism can take their place in the government of Northern Ireland and that, if the organisations to which they are attached are engaged in violence or threatening violence they cannot take their place in the assembly itself. There must be no toleration of Sinn Fein passing themselves off as legitimate democrats whilst the IRA continues to believe that the Good Friday agreement is no more than a "significant development". As long as Mr Blair does not appease them, the best way to test Sinn Fein is to vote "Yes" and force them to renounce violence.

Despite the doubts, worries and fears that voters legitimately feel, to vote "No" would be by far the more certain way back to the abyss.