In 5-inch-tall letters declaring "NO," Northern Ireland's biggest Protestant organization urged its members Saturday to reject the Belfast peace accord in this month's referendum.
The Orange Order's blunt recommendation to its 50,000 members, published in its monthly newspaper, increases pressure on David Trimble, the Protestant leader campaigning for people to approve the compromise agreement on May 22.The British and Irish governments and eight parties, including Trimble's Ulster Unionists and the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party, struck the deal April 10 after 22 months of negotiations.
While Trimble argues that the agreement offers Protestants much of what they have long demanded - a local administration, an end to the Irish Republic's territorial claim and the prospect of Irish Republican Army disarmament - six of his nine Parliament colleagues have joined the "no" camp. All are prominent in the Orange Order.
The Orange Standard newspaper distributed Saturday bore the one-word headline and the view that the agreement "is something which very few unionists, if they are patently honest, could live with."
In response, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office arranged a long-postponed meeting for this week with the order's Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. But hopes were low that Blair could meet their demands for "radical changes" to the accord.
Senior Orangemen said they refuse to accept any agreement that lets Sinn Fein take part in the new Northern Ireland government after an election June 25 - or frees all imprisoned members of the IRA and pro-British paramilitary groups by May 2000.
"I cannot come to terms with terrorists being released within two years or the possibility of terrorists sitting in government," said Denis Watson of the Grand Orange Lodge.