Apathy in Irish Republic imperils mandate for peace Northern troubles seem distant in well-off Dublin

DUBLIN, IRELAND — DUBLIN, Ireland -- At first glance, the agreement aimed at ending three decades of street warfare and other violence in Northern Ireland seems like a political winner here in the Republic of Ireland. In contrast to the North, where it is the subject of relentless and often vitriolic debate, in Ireland the accord has the support of every major political party.

Who, after all, could object to peace?


But while the agreement represents a momentous step in resolving one of this century's most persistent conflicts, government and other political figures in Ireland say they face a surprisingly daunting challenge in persuading the more than 2 million eligible voters to turn out on May 22, when it will be put to referendums here and in Northern Ireland.

Politicians here who favor the treaty are commissioning daily polls to measure public sentiment. They are sending elected leaders to campaign around the country and arming them with "talking points." They are enlisting celebrities in sports and entertainment to generate interest.


The agreement's backers are so worried about finding the most potent strategy for packaging peace -- and ensuring that the accord wins overwhelming public support -- that they consulted marketing experts and convened focus groups of prospective voters around the country to come up with slogans. (The choice of the nation's largest party, Fianna Fail, is not flashy but tested extremely well, especially among women of all demographic groups: "Vote Yes for Peace.")

Fears about the turnout seem well founded. Last week the chatter in the misty green parks, on the swarming streets along the River Liffey and in the pubs was not about Northern Ireland but about an Irish Olympic swimmer who may have failed a drug test.

Dozens of residents said in random interviews that while they wanted peace, they felt far removed from Northern Ireland, whose border is only about 50 miles to the north.

Seeking to counter the indifference, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern on Friday opened the intensive three-week campaign of his party, Fianna Fail, with this plea, "It is very important that there should be a high yes vote, not just amongst those who vote but amongst the electorate as a whole." He added, "Let us show that we really care, that we do not want to see anyone else killed, any more families bereaved."

The costly, all-out political offensives, which several parties are waging independently, are not driven by fear that the agreement will not muster the simple majority needed for passage. No pollster here thinks it will be defeated.

Rather the concern, particularly among government officials, is that a low turnout coupled with a less-than-decisive yes vote among those who do take part would make it much more difficult to carry out an agreement that must already overcome decades of entrenched hatreds. Another concern is that a less-than-overwhelming vote would embolden the small, largely fringe parties in Ireland that oppose the treaty.

"It's important for the parties to motivate people so they understand that this is their chance to put their mark on a big, big moment in Irish history," said P. J. Mara, a veteran political operative who is running the Fianna Fail campaign.

Liz O'Donnell, the deputy foreign minister, explained: "We want an overwhelming vote. We want it to be a huge endorsement. We want it to be a very special day."


Political self-interest is at play as well: Ahern's advisers said he was eager to cement his impressive approval ratings by being regarded as a leader who helped deliver peace and whose country united behind him.

But backers concede that their challenge is complicated because it is far easier to package a political candidate than an amorphous notion -- even one as enticing as peace.

There is no bad guy to vote against. Some people feel threatened that they are being asked to abandon Ireland's constitutional provisions that lay claim to the North. And because most people in Ireland expect the referendum to pass, there is a disincentive to vote, political analysts say.

In this booming city -- where a far greater proportion of people than in Manhattan walk down the street talking into their cellular telephones -- some residents said they had been to Brussels, Belgium, more often than to Belfast and felt a much greater psychological connection to other parts of Europe. Opinion polls show that while the accord has wide support, as much as a third of the electorate is undecided.

"My basic feeling is it could float off into the ocean and we wouldn't care," Colin Dargan, a 26-year-old computer salesman, said of Northern Ireland. "I've never been up there. It's never affected me in any which way at all."

John Turner, 39, a college lecturer, said people here are more interested in economic growth than in dwelling on tensions up north.


Mary Corcoran, a 32-year-old government worker, put it this way: "It's not that we're not concerned, but we're all Europeans now anyway." As an afterthought, she added, "We're also all Irish."

Pub Date: 5/03/98