Pop meets politics as rock stars rally for Irish peace Backers of peace referendum use music to reach young voters


BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The appeals from two prime ministers didn't work. The pronouncements from President Clinton fell flat. And the parade of furloughed terrorist prisoners at political rallies produced more outrage than reconciliation.

So, when all else failed on the campaign trail in recent weeks, the leaders trying to rally Northern Ireland to vote yes to peace brought out the rock 'n' roll stars.

Last night, pop met politics as U2 and local band Ash united Northern Ireland's top two politicians in a bid to galvanize young voters before Friday's referendum on the historic Northern Ireland peace accord.

The bands rocked Belfast's gleaming glass-enclosed concert hall. Two thousand high school students screamed and danced, as U2's lead singer Bono belted out "Don't Let Me Down," "Give Peace a Chance" and "Stand by Me."

And in the most dramatic move of all, two architects of the peace plan shared a stage for the first time since agreeing to the deal April 10. David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists Party shook hands with John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labor Party.

"It's great to be in Belfast in a week when history is being made," said Bono, who introduced Trimble and Hume as "two men taking a leap of faith out of the past and into the future." The singer then joined the shirt-sleeved, middle-age politicians under the spotlight, holding their hands aloft as if he were crowning dual heavyweight champions. The crowd roared. And the politicians remained silent.

It was the biggest moment yet in the frantic campaign to persuade voters on both sides of the Irish border to approve the referendum that seeks to carve out a new political era for the people of Northern Ireland, the six northern counties that remain part of Great Britain.

Politics changing

And it was yet another sign that politics -- and presentation -- are changing in a land often rooted in old ways and older ideas as majority Protestants and minority Roman Catholics are trying to bury their often violent past.

In Northern Ireland, politics is usually conducted in homes, churches and clubhouses. It's often filled with contentious parades and snarling debates befitting a society wrecked for nearly 30 years by armed hatred that claimed more than 3,200 lives.

Rock and roll has never before been part of the political equation. But just as Britain is trying to refashion itself as a young and vital country, Northern Ireland is following the lead. A political handler prepared a press throng for the U2 appearance with a gentle reminder: "U2 are a rock band. They're not a political party."

"Music isn't a barrier between people," said Lynn Cairns, a 17-year-old Protestant from Londonderry who showed up dressed in her school uniform with her best friend Nicole McCartney, a 17-year-old Roman Catholic.

"I don't know if this can make a difference, but it's worth a try," McCartney said.

The friends agreed that voting "Yes" is just a start toward peace.

"It will take years and years for all the bad feelings to go away," Cairns said. "People have grown up with these feelings and they believe in what their mothers and fathers say."

Breaking with the past

But rock 'n' roll isn't about listening to your parents. It's about rebellion, about breaking with the past. And that's what the "Yes" campaigners are trying to get across to the public. So far, this coalition of two governments, local political parties and just about every local business and union has been only partly successful in getting out its message.

Polls show the referendum passing by healthy margins in Northern Ireland and the southern Irish Republic. Yet Northern Ireland's majority Protestant community is wavering. If Protestants don't back the deal, the peace plan may prove unworkable when the local politicians convene after next month's elections to a 108-member local assembly.

The "No" crowd, which includes many of Ulster's leading Protestant politicians, has stirred fears over the impending release of more terrorist prisoners, the decommissioning of weapons held by paramilitary groups, and new ties envisioned between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. In recent days, they have gained momentum with daily rallies and press briefings to deliver their single message: just say no.

By comparison, the "Yes" campaigners have no single message. The Ulster Unionists, the main Protestant party, claim the deal ensures that Northern Ireland will remain part of Britain. The SDLP highlights the power-sharing principles contained in the agreement and the cross-border ties to Ireland. And Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, claims the agreement provides a transition to its goal of a united Ireland.

Leaders lend support

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has sought to build support in two high-profile appearances in Northern Ireland, with a third scheduled for today. Blair's Irish counterpart, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, has also tried to boost the deal, though overall support hasn't hit the target of 70 percent.

President Clinton has been a cheerleader from afar, offering encouragement for the peace process while on his recent tour of Europe, saying that the risk of voting "yes" was smaller "than the risk of letting it blow apart." Yet Clinton stayed away from Belfast when local leaders claimed a presidential visit would be counterproductive.

Missteps made

The decision by the governments to grant brief paroles to convicted terrorists to attend political rallies also didn't go down well with voters tired from years of violence. When the Balcombe Street gang -- responsible for a 1970s wave of deadly bombings -- showed up at Sinn Fein's special session to approve the peace deal, many Protestants were outraged. Catholics were similarly infuriated after the brief prison release of Michael Stone, who killed three mourners at an IRA funeral, but who received a hero's welcome at a Progressive Unionist Party rally.

Yet the dramatic prisoner appearances had a point: to persuade gunmen to keep a cease-fire and agree to the deal.

The terrorist parade slowed the "Yes" campaigners. So, they went back to the basics, with door-to-door canvassing and mailings, with the government paying for postage, a perk it also offers to "No" campaigners.

Television advertising isn't a factor, since the British frown on the practice. Debates have been sober affairs, for the most part, free from name-calling. And newspapers have been filled with articles detailing the positions of both sides.

Quintin Oliver, who heads the "Yes" campaign, said, "Letting people unlearn the politics of 30 years, where it has been a matter of life and death, is hard. It has been tough to marshal the "Yes" forces because there are so many. There are 12 political parties together, the business community, the labor unions, the churches, the artists, the sports stars. The "No" campaign have none of these things. Not a single organization supports them. None. Zero."

But for one night, at least, the "Yes" campaign showed it could bring a dash of glamour to Northern Ireland.

They rocked the vote.

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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