BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- What was once unthinkable became unforgettable as Northern Ireland's voters broke with their bloody past and delivered a landslide victory for peace and power sharing.
In a ballot taken Friday and counted yesterday, 71.12 percent of voters approved the historic Northern Irish peace accord, with 28.18 percent against.
Eighty-one percent of Northern Ireland's 1.2 million voters cast ballots, putting the politicians on notice to put an end to the terrorist troubles that have brought so much heartbreak to so many families in a society divided by faith and history.
"This is a staggering result in a divided community," said John Alderdice of the moderate Alliance Party. "There are no issues that are impossible to solve."
Voters in the Irish Republic to the south also delivered a mandate for change, with nearly 95 percent approving the deal that requires Ireland to drop its territorial claim to the north.
In return, new links will be established between the republic and Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain.
"There's a lot of hope out there now," said Gerry Adams, lead of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. "We have to deliver on that hope."
Passage of the accord, which was hammered out April 10 by eight local political parties and the British and Irish governments, is a first step in Northern Ireland's long road to recovery and reconciliation.
Nearly 30 years of recent violence have claimed more than 3,200 lives, as majority Protestants and minority Roman Catholics battled for land and power.
Many Protestants were determined to uphold Northern Ireland's union with Britain; many Catholics yearned for a united Ireland.
Now, for the first time in a generation, Northern Ireland's leaders appear determined to forge new alliances and create new dreams.
"The people want us to build institutions which, unlike in the past, we share together," said John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, the mainstream Catholic party in Northern Ireland.
Hope was expressed by other leaders, too.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, "It's a day for joy. This is another giant stride along the path toward peace and hope in the future."
President Clinton said from Washington, "As of today, peace is no longer a dream. It is a reality. You have indeed joined hope to history."
Many inside the cavernous King's Hall -- where the ballots were counted -- were overcome with emotion as the laborious hand-counting of the ballots gave way to the announcement of the results.
Some cheered; others wept.
The announcement was beamed live on television around the world. But it was in homes and shopping malls in Northern Ireland where the result had the most impact.
In one mall cheers arose among shoppers who were watching the event. But along the Shankill Road in the heart of Protestant west Belfast, there were boos and looks of disgust among some patrons gathered at a local store.
It was plain to see who the political winners and losers were.
Hume won. The bespectacled former college teacher had long guided this peace process, working tirelessly behind the scenes to create new alliances.
"The people of north and south of Ireland have spoken," Hume said. "They share this piece of land together."
Adams won, too. There was a time when he was banned from the British mainland, when his voice couldn't be heard over British airwaves. Now, he routinely meets with Blair, and he continues to gain a measure of stature with each day that the IRA holds its cease-fire.
But the biggest winner of all was David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, the main Protestant party.
Anything less than a 70 percent approval in the referendum in Northern Ireland would have meant that Protestants had voted against the deal. But they apparently didn't, though a precise accounting will never be made because all the ballots -- Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist -- were mixed together.
"It is an endorsement of what we did in the negotiations," Trimble said. "It is a very welcome acceptance by people of what is an element of compromise."
The biggest losers, at least for now, were those Protestant unionists who bitterly fought the accord. Their leader was the Rev. Ian Paisley, the head of the Democratic Unionist Party.
The silver-haired 72-year-old who has dominated the political landscape here for decades was hooted down by supporters of the Progressive Unionist Party, which represents paramilitaries, some of whom shouted, "Go back to Jurassic Park."
Paisley was unbowed, vowing to carry on his fight against the agreement in the new assembly.
"We're the saviors of the union," he said.
Some things never change: Trimble appeared in the same makeshift television studio as Adams. But the men refused to speak, much less look at one another.
Trimble wants the IRA to hand in its weapons. Adams wants a meeting with Trimble.
"I want to hear him [Adams] say what he calls the war is over," Trimble said. "I want to hear him say the republican movement will now disarm and disband the military machine, and I want to hear him say that there will be no return to violence in the future."
The debate is likely to intensify in the coming weeks as the politicians continue to battle for the hearts and minds of voters and start to put into place provisions of the peace agreement.
Elections will be held June 25 for a 108-member assembly, which will be headed by a 12-member executive council and which will have safeguards for Protestants and Catholics.
Within two years, terrorist prisoners are due for release, guerrilla groups are to disarm, and the local police force is to initiate reforms. Any one of these issues could plunge Northern Ireland back into division.
The issue of prisoners is particularly emotional in a society that has suffered so much killing and damage over the years with shootings, bombings, knee-cappings.
"For some, the glass is half-empty. How could you release these bad men? For others, the glass is half-full. You have to pull the curtain down on the past in a creative and constructive way," said David Ervine, a former terrorist prisoner and leader of the Progressive Unionists.
Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, said, "There's enough work to keep us busy the next 20 years."
Pub Date: 5/24/98