On the Stump for Vote on N. Ireland Peace Deal

Politicians for and against the accord step up rhetoric ahead of May 22 referendums.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The "yes" campaign in Northern Ireland's referendum on last month's peace settlement is moving into high gear.

But it is doing so against a backdrop of hard-line Protestant resistance and lingering uncertainty about the long-term intentions of Catholic terrorist groups.

In a unique joint effort, Britain's Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair, who transacted the accord, and his Conservative predecessor John Major, who helped to trigger the peace process when in office, campaigned together yesterday in the province. They urged voters to support the deal when they head to the polls May 22.

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And in a striking policy reversal, political representatives of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) voted May 5 to approve members of its political wing, Sinn Fein, taking seats in a proposed Northern Ireland assembly. Until now, the IRA's constitution has ruled out Sinn Fein members accepting seats in any legislative body approved by Britain.

The IRA's move is an indication that when Sinn Fein senior policymakers meet to debate the peace agreement this weekend, they will urge grass-roots supporters to vote "yes." Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is expected to call for acceptance of the deal, but it is by no means certain that he will be able to win unqualified support.

Within Northern Ireland's Protestant community there are deep divisions as well.

David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the largest pro-British group, helped negotiate the settlement. But Mr. Trimble is having to contend with strong opposition from within. Senior UUP member William Ross said this week, "I intend to see to it that this party eventually comes to its senses and changes its policy back to a more traditional and more sensible line."

The Democratic Unionist Party, led by the fiery Ian Paisley, is totally opposed to the agreement. The Rev. Mr. Paisley is reported to be drawing good-sized crowds with his slogan, "The right to say 'no.' "

The readiness of Mr. Major and Mr. Blair to share a platform in Belfast is a powerful indication of the urgency with which Britain's Labour and Conservative parties regard the need for popular approval of the agreement aimed at ending 30 years of sectarian violence.

After appearing together in Belfast, Blair and Major campaigned separately. Blair met members of Northern Ireland's security forces, many of whom are reportedly concerned that IRA units have vowed not to surrender weapons and explosives, despite being required to do so under terms of the peace deal.

Major spoke to a group of business leaders. He told them that rejection of the agreement would "cost Northern Ireland dearly in terms of jobs and inward investment."

The "yes" campaign is being helped, free of charge, by Saatchi and Saatchi, a leading advertising agency. A billboard the firm has designed shows two road signs. One caption says "Vote yes, it's the way ahead." The other indicates "Dead end."

The anti-agreement campaign appears to be developing along the theme of "No Surrender," a traditional pro-British call.

As campaigning intensifies, much is likely to depend on the outcome of talks due to be held later this week between Blair and members of Northern Ireland's influential Protestant Orange Order Grand Lodge.

Last week the lodge voted to reject the multiparty peace agreement, but Blair hopes to persuade members that it is not the anti-Unionist document they have so far claimed it to be. The lodge says it will be seeking assurances from the prime minister that the IRA will be required to hand in its weapons and supplies of explosives.

UUP leader Trimble, interviewed yesterday by the BBC, said he expected the IRA to offer "a token surrender of arms" ahead of the referendum.

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