Seeking consent in Northern Ireland: Now for the referendum, when the people's voice will be heard

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THE DEMOCRATIC architecture of Belfast, and, in particular, the monumental, in your face, Stormont parliament building looking magisterially down on Carson's statue, is among the most imposing in the world. But it has never lived up to its physical pretensions. Until direct rule, it was for Catholics a hated sectarian symbol of post-partition Unionist ascendancy. And since direct rule - with the exception of a few tantalising months after the abortive Sunningdale agreement - it has been an empty shell, mocking the lack of living democratic politics in Northern Ireland. The lights were on, but no one was at home.

All that could now be transformed. One of the many huge benefits of the Good Friday settlement is that, as the Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble eloquently put it yesterday, "a healthy, vibrant, democracy [stands] to replace the stagnation, frustration and powerlessness of the last three decades". The cross-community assembly agreed on Friday has the ability to fill a vacuum which, for more than quarter of a century, has helped to leave politics clear for the bomb and the Armalite.

But to achieve democracy, you first have to get there, and by democratic means. Between now and 22 May, one of the most delicate and important persuasive exercises ever undertaken in the British Isles will be conducted to ensure a yes vote in the referendum on both sides of the border. When Tony Blair said from his brief holiday in Spain that nothing could be taken for granted he meant it. It's a sentiment felt if anything even more deeply by Trimble and those of his UUP colleagues who have bravely staked their political lives on the settlement. They have already begun. Even Whitehall's most famously energetic spin doctors were yesterday impressed at how quickly both David Trimble and his deputy John Taylor moved this weekend and started to argue the case for why Ulster should, at last, say yes.

An as yet unresolved question is how the broadcasters will handle the referendum campaign. There have been suggestions in Belfast that the ITC in its advice to Ulster Television and the BBC may take the view that equal play has to be given to each side in the referendum debate. But is coverage of every speech by Tony Blair or David Trimble or John Hume really going to be be balanced by equal time allotted to Ian Paisley or a renegade republican defector?

Given that the SDLP and the UUP command together a majority of votes cast in general elections - securing 13 MPs between them, compared with only four from Paisley's anti-settlement DUP and Bob McCartney's UK Unionist Party - they are arguably entitled to a lion's share of the airtime. Particularly if Sinn Fein -which won enough votes to secure two MPs - joins them on yes platforms. Of course, the no campaign should not be suppressed; but should that really mean equal air time? Surely not.

The Prime Minister has already sought the support of both John Major and Paddy Ashdown in the task of winning hearts and minds of Northern Ireland's people. Government officials in Northern Ireland are likely to be wary of too frequent interventions by outside mainland politicians. The humiliating demise of the Conservative candidate in the Upper Bann by-election, which brought David Trimble to Westminster in 1990, is cited as one example of how they can go wrong. Another, seared in the memories of NIO officialdom, is Harold Wilson's seriously misjudged prime ministerial broadcast during the Ulster Workers' Strike which extinguished the hopes invested in Sunningdale.

I don't think Tony Blair will - or should - be too put off by this folklore. He has almost unlimited faith in the persuasive powers of logical argument. He knows the nuances of Northern Ireland politics infinitely better than Wilson ever did. It is hard to imagine a Prime Minister at the peak of his prestige, standing aside from that process.

Finally, the visit to Belfast of President Clinton, whose own role in the talks - including making it bluntly clear to Gerry Adams that Sinn Fein had achieved as much as it could on the release of prisoners - was highly important, is likely to happen on 19 May, after the G8 meeting in Birmingham. This would be only three days before the planned date of a referendum. The big guns, in other words, are lining up.

But none of this will eclipse the paramount importance of local politicians themselves. In this most politically obsessive corner of the world, many people will indeed sit down to read the 69-page agreement sent to every home in Northern Ireland. Touring the Lower Falls before the agreement last week, you could not fail to be struck by how many people said, "It depends on what it says," or "I'll have to read it first." But they will also take a lead from the party leaders. Ian Paisley on Thursday night, fighting to be heard above the heckling from those ex-paramilitaries who once regarded him as the only politician worth listening to, looked well past his sell by date. But his rhetorical power, and his ability to exploit the clear divisions within the UUP shouldn't be written off.

And those very divisions may yet prove a key variable. The crucial meeting that Trimble has to win over is the UUP council next weekend. And while the four ageing UUP MPs who have already condemned the deal may not carry as much clout as they think, the depressing and naked opportunism of the young Jeffrey Donaldson's opposition is a little more sinister. But the past few weeks have shown what a great mistake it is to underestimate Trimble. Ministers have also been struck by how eloquently the settlement has since been defended by two of the UUP MPs who created most difficult in the talks themselves. John Taylor and Ken Maginnis. Some persuasive men from both communities will now be fighting together for a yes vote. It's a strange thing, but the campaign may prove a rehearsal for the very kind of collaborative politics which will be needed once the assembly is under way.

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