For the first time I’m nervous flying to Belfast. It’s early morning, Friday 22 May, and radio reports tell of streams of voters heading to the polls. As I buy the Irish Times at the newstand in Terminal One, I catch sight of one of my graduate students – we nod and smile quickly. He’s flying to Cork to vote Yes. I haven’t a vote, but I want to be there on the day. Though the view is that a high poll is a sign of a strong Yes vote, I have a gut feeling – no, more a fear – that the No vote will be mounting up. I place the Yeses at 62 per cent, and feel that Sidney Elliott, a political scientist at Queens University, is too optimistic in predicting 75 per cent. But then I’m drearily pessimistic about everything.
On the Friday – Good Friday – when the Agreement was signed, we drove from Belfast to Donegal, listening to the radio news. It was a bitter cold day, the radio blanked out on the Glenshane Pass and in Dungiven, but always the tone of the reports, when they got through, was positive. It would soon be a done deal, they insisted. That Friday, when the announcer said the Agreement had been signed, I felt a sort of cold hope: I remembered Sunningdale, the Loyalist Workers’ Strike, the collapse of the Power-Sharing Executive in 1974. At seven that evening, we reached the house of the friend we were staying with on Lough Swilly. Looking at the hail sweeping down the darkening lough, he said, yes, it was good news the peace had been signed, but the deal had been hanging by a thread at four that afternoon. Now, on a hot, sunny, blue day I remember how precarious the talks had been. Reading an article in the Daily Telegraph where David Trimble concludes his argument for a Yes vote by saying ‘we must have confidence in ourselves to face the future, not use the troubles of the past as a comfort blanket,’ I wonder how many Unionists will follow his advice. The vote will be Yes, but he has got to get a majority of Unionist voters as part of that overall vote. There is also an article by the No-campaigner Robert McCartney, a barrister and UK Unionist MP whom no one in Britain I know has ever heard of. Perhaps that’s because he’s kept the press on their guard with his proven readiness to sue for libel (there was a famous episode in Northern Ireland some years ago involving a chocolate eclair). McCartney states that the majority of Unionists will vote No to ‘delegates of armed terrorists serving both in the assembly and government’. For him, the Good Friday Agreement is the product of Britain’s need to resolve its conflict with Republican terrorism in order ‘to protect the mainland’.
McCartney has campaigned vociferously with Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson against the Agreement – in April, at the launch of the United Unionist campaign, he gave the clenched fist salute – and though most people regard him as a provincial politician, his policy of trying to make Northern Ireland permanently part of the United Kingdom is popular with the prosperous middle-class voters of North Down, or ‘the Gold Coast’ as it’s called. Surely they’ll back the No vote? But I’m not sure. My image for the Good Friday Agreement is a short, strong rubber band, the sort attached to a metal tent peg. Like one of those bands, it can stretch in opposite directions, simultaneously strengthening the Union and helping move Northern Ireland into a new relationship with the Irish Republic. Or it can make Northern Ireland part of the new federal United Kingdom now emerging, as part of a confederal Ireland. Sovereignty over Northern Ireland will no longer reside in Westminster, the Agreement implies, but in the Assembly.