One issue above all others threatens the future of Northern Ireland as people here voice their judgment of the recent peace agreement in today's referendum: freeing the killers who have wrought havoc on this province for the past 30 years.
Under the proposed accord to end what is known as "The Troubles," almost all of those currently jailed for politically motivated violence would be released within two years.
Opponents have seized successfully on this emotional issue to spur their campaign. But ironically, the prisoners and ex-prisoners - so-called hardmen of both the Catholic Republican and Protestant Loyalist communities - are among the most ardent supporters of the compromise agreement. Many are bitter to find their past deeds weighing more heavily in the balance than their new readiness for reconciliation.
"The 'no' campaign is pushing buttons, revictimizing the victims and the prisoners, using them as a political football," complains Tom Roberts, a Loyalist gunman who served 13 years for murder. "The people saying 'vote no' are basically people never involved in the conflict who are ready to fight to the last drop of everybody else's blood."
The about 400 prisoners still being held - terrorists in the view of the British government, combatants in their own eyes - have found themselves at the heart of the debate over the merits of the peace agreement reached on April 10, Good Friday, between Northern Ireland's political leaders.
Protestant campaigners against the agreement have argued that it would be both dangerous and morally wrong to release those prisoners early. "These people are not political prisoners, these people are murderers, gangsters, and racketeers," complains Sandra Peacock, widow of a murdered Protestant prison officer. Such attitudes among Protestants have swung many of them away from the deal.
Clear mandate sought
Although the agreement is expected to pass in today's referendums in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland due to strong Catholic support, it is not clear whether a majority of Northern Ireland Protestants will back it. If they do not, its provisions will be hard to implement, political leaders acknowledge.
Supporters of the deal, especially Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and Loyalist parties representing paramilitary groups, argue that only the prisoners' release will lay the groundwork for the construction of a whole community.
"Not until everyone is back where they belong can we say 'let's move on,' " says Micheal Ferguson, a Sinn Fein leader who himself served an eight-year sentence and now works to help released IRA prisoners rebuild their lives.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a leading architect of the peace accord, has been at pains to stress that prisoners would qualify for early release only if their organizations are abiding by the cease-fire.
Government figures also show that only about 160 of the prisoners would not be free by July 2000 anyway, given existing parole arrangements.
Few commit new crimes
At the same time, according to the Northern Ireland Prisons Department, only two of the 435 lifers sentenced for murder or attempted murder and released since 1985 have been convicted of fresh crimes.
That, say people who work with ex-prisoners, may be because their organizations felt that activists who had served long jail terms had suffered enough, and did not call on them to use weapons again. But it also suggests a common experience of reflection in prison, and of conversion to constitutional politics.
"We are not hardmen gone soft," Gusty Spence, a founding father of the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and supporter of the peace deal, told a television interviewer this week. "We are hardmen who have become wise."
Mr. Spence pioneered the creation of jail study groups among Protestant prisoners that bred a new generation of Loyalist political leaders who later moved to the forefront of peace negotiations.
His efforts to broaden his followers' vision mirrored a longstanding Republican tradition of prison organization and education that forged the current Sinn Fein leadership.
Battling for better conditions and educational facilities and to be treated as political detainees rather than as ordinary convicts, the prisoners honed their political skills and encouraged one another to put their jail time to constructive use.
An indication of the result: Of the seven Republican women prisoners now in Maghaberry Prison, three have completed university degrees, one has earned her doctorate, and two more are in their final year of a degree course.
Not all of the 20,000 or so men and women who have been jailed in Northern Ireland since 1969 for politically motivated crimes have achieved such qualifications, of course. And not all of those who did found they were worth much on the streets of Belfast.
Jobs, not politics, needed
Mr. Roberts, a former telephone engineer, took a degree in computer science during his incarceration. "I naively thought this would increase my job opportunities," he says. "But I was sadly disappointed."
There are few enough jobs of any sort in the poorer districts of Belfast that spawned the violence, let alone jobs for highly qualified graduates.
That - and the political motivation that originally led many of the imprisoned activists into the paramilitaries - has now led large numbers of ex-prisoners on both sides of the sectarian divide into community work, often helping other ex-prisoners reestablish themselves when they finish their sentences.
About 20 self-help groups have sprung up across the province over the past two years, largely funded by the European Union's "Peace and Reconciliation" project and staffed by former prisoners who know firsthand the problems that newly released prisoners face.
Republican prisoners, returning to a community that often regards them as heroes, generally find a more receptive welcome than their Loyalist counterparts, they say.
"When I came out it would take me 20 minutes to get to the corner shop, so many people would stop me to ask how I was doing and if I needed anything," recalls former Republican prisoner Mary Ellen Campbell of the period after her release from four years in jail.
Most Protestants, on the other hand, hold the Loyalist gunmen in contempt. "A lot of his own community see a boy coming out of jail as a criminal, a hood," explains David Colvin, a welfare-rights officer at "EPIC," a UVF-linked self-help group and an ex-prisoner himself.
Ex-prisoners on both sides, however, face many of the same personal and practical problems, and they are reluctant to turn for help to government bodies such as the probation service, where they complain they are treated as criminals, not as the former prisoners of war that they consider themselves.
Government bodies "don't have anything to offer," argues Mary Mcardley, a former IRA prisoner now with Sinn Fein's POW department. "They are working with people who offended against their communities and who are not welcomed back," she says.
Instead, politically motivated ex-prisoners prefer to seek advice from groups like EPIC, or, on the Republican side, Tar Anall - "come on back" in Gaelic. There they find men and women like themselves who are also well versed in the practical intricacies of claiming welfare, finding housing and skills training, and applying for jobs.
"They come to me because I am an ex-prisoner," says Mr. Colvin, who since his own release has earned a law degree and a counseling qualification. "They relate to me where they don't trust outsiders and feel intimidated," he says.
Such groups also offer counseling when ex-prisoners cannot find their place in the outside world.
Many long-term prisoners have difficulty reestablishing relationships with wives and children not used to having them around; others need help coming to terms with the brutality of their prison experiences.
"People have parties for you when you come out, but after that's all over, where are you?" says Mr. Ferguson, who works at Tar Anall. "You have to reestablish yourself, and I found that a very lonely experience," he says.
"A lot of people have a lot of personal baggage and they need to be able to talk about it," he adds. "The importance of a place like this is that nothing needs to be explained, there is immediate empathy" from counselors who went through similar experiences.
Beyond the counseling and the training, however, what ex-prisoners need most is a job, and there is little that the self-help groups can do to create them. That, say community workers, will depend on the investment and prosperity they hope will come in the wake of a peace deal.
And those ex-prisoners who have turned to politics will also have to wait - their democratic aspirations are paradoxically curtailed by British law.
Under legislation that President Nelson Mandela must be glad was not in force in South Africa, no former prisoner convicted of paramilitary offenses may stand for elected office until five years after his release.