20 Words of Hope

Voters in Northern Ireland head to polls tomorrow to cast a ballot on a simple 20-word question: "Do you support the agreement reached in the multiparty talks on Northern Ireland and set out in Command Paper 3883?"

What they say about that dull-sounding phrase will be the most important decision for the island since it was divided in 1921.

Our fervent hope is that an overwhelming majority, both Catholic and Protestant, will approve the referendum. Those who do are saying "yes" to peace, voting "their hopes instead of their fears," as President Clinton put it recently.

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A "yes" to the Belfast Agreement, worked out April 10 after 22 months of negotiations between all the major political parties, will establish that:

* Any change in the political status of Northern Ireland will only be decided by its own people.

* People have a right to claim identity as Irish or British or both.

* Home rule will return through a 108-seat assembly.

* A North-South council will begin to address issues of common interest with the Irish Republic.

* The release of paramilitary prisoners, on both sides, will be accelerated as long as their organizations continue to honor a cease-fire.

In a separate referendum tomorrow, voters in the Republic are expected to repeal claims to Northern Ireland in the Irish Constitution, another vital element of the agreement.

The "yes" campaign, enthusiastically backed by the Irish and British governments, does not resolve all issues. No one sees it as perfect. But it takes the guns and bombs out of the dispute and moves it to the arena of political dialogue.

Unfortunately, a "no" campaign based on fear has gained momentum as the vote nears. Televised scenes of convicted Irish Republican Army killers - let out briefly to give their support to the agreement - embracing Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams have been used to great emotional effect by unionist "no" forces, who would rather have voters focus on the dark crimes of the past than the bright possibilities of the future.

A large turnout and a strong "yes" majority of 65 to 70 percent would show that both the nationalist and loyalist communities are ready to move forward. This support will be important in electing candidates committed to the agreement to the new legislature in a vote on June 25.

At a rally and concert Tuesday night, U2 lead singer Bono summed up the hopes of "yes" supporters when he quoted John Lennon. "All we are saying," he told the crowd, "is give peace a chance."

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