After three decades of bloodshed and a bitter debate over the future of Northern Ireland, politicians fell silent Friday to let voters rule on the Belfast peace accord.
Every opinion poll has pointed to approval when ballots are counted Saturday in both Northern Ireland and the neighboring Irish Republic, where voters were being asked to drop their country's constitutional claim to the British-ruled north as part of the historic agreement.Majority "yes" votes in both parts of Ireland would clear the way for implementation of the agreement on Northern Ireland's future. The accord was struck April 10 among the British and Irish governments and eight northern political parties.
"Anything for peace," said Deborah McCarron, after casting a "yes" vote at a polling station in Creggan, a mainly Catholic district of Londonderry.
Alistair Simpson voted no. The leader in Londonderry of the Apprentice Boys, a Protestant fraternal order, described the vote as a sellout. "It's a first step to a united Ireland and we won't have it," he said.
The agreement calls for an election June 25 in Northern Ireland to select an 108-member Belfast legislature from which a 12-member administration would be drawn. Decisions would require both Protestant and Catholic support.
Polls project that the Irish Republic's 2.7 million voters will easily endorse an agreement that will not affect their daily lives much. But in the north, the outcome among its 1.2 million registered voters is expected to be close - most pivotally within the province's Protestant majority.
Pat Bradley, Northern Ireland chief electoral officer, said he expects more than 80 percent of the province's registered voters to go the polls, which would be a record turnout.
At some of the 500 polling stations across the province, people formed lines even before voting started at 7 a.m.
Many Protestants reject the entire deal on the grounds it would give IRA-allied Sinn Fein a role in the new Belfast government and allow early paroles for imprisoned members of the Irish Republican Army, which has observed a truce since July 1997.
However, the Ulster News Letter carried an unequivocal message today for its largely Protestant readership. "Say `yes' and say it loud," declared the front page headline.
In Dublin, John Feery voted for the agreement after finishing his overnight shift at a bakery. "It's about time the politicians decided to compromise," he said.