Teenagers split on peace vote

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Michael Prestage asks Protestant and Catholic sixth-formers in Belfast what they feel about next week's referendum.

AS Northern Ireland prepares to vote on the peace deal, the sectarian divide in Belfast is as wide as ever if the views of two sets of grammar school pupils faithfully reflect the city.

Articulate and well-informed, A-level politics students from Roman Catholic Rathmore in the south of the city and their counterparts at the Protestant Strathearn in the east disagreed on how they would vote.

While all but one of the 15 Rathmore pupils would vote for the Good Friday Agreement, only half of those at Strathearn concurred. A simple question on nationality graphically highlighted this split. With one voice they chorused "Irish" at Rathmore, but Strathearn was split between "British" and Northern Irish".

Certainly some of the opinions, particularly from the Protestant pupils, would trouble Tony Blair, John Major and the rest of the campaigners urging a "yes" vote in the referendum on May 22.

There was at times a depressing pessimism in the teenagers' views. "Whether the vote is 'yes' or 'no' it will not solve anything. There will still be fighting. It will be the way it has always been. Unionists don't want a united Ireland," said Lyndsey Fitzpatrick at Strathearn.

"I can't see how you can have an agreement that keeps everyone happy," said Claire Hunter, at Rathmore.

"Even on Good Friday, when the agreement was being signed, there were Unionists rioting. How is there going to be peace? There will always be fighting."

At Rathmore Sinn Fein's decision to campaign for a "yes" vote was seen as vital and the role of Bertie Ahern, the Irish premier, was praised.

Perhaps inevitably, the view at Strathearn was that the Republicans and the Dublin government had gained most from the proposed settlement. These pupils believed the Loyalist "no" vote was gaining the ascendancy.

"There is a lot of propaganda that voting 'no' is betraying your children and turning your back on peace and the future. But a lot of Unionists are realising that it isn't that good a deal for them," said Lyndsey.

But there were a few optimistic voices to be heard. James Doran at Rathmore believes there can be peace and that although the terrorists will not disappear they will be marginalised.

Rachel Osborne, on the other side of Belfast, said: " I hope there is a 'yes' vote. I think it is a positive way forward. There is no real alternative. If the agreement is accepted it will have been achieved through compromise and that is the way forward."

The IRA's failure to agree to decommission its weapons and the release of Republican prisoners were issues that the Strathearn students said would be key factors in a "no" vote.

Sectarian conflict is so deep-rooted in the province that Rebecca Martin believes it will never be overcome.

"By the time children go to primary school they already know the songs and what the symbols are for. It has been drummed into people for so long."

There is one issue on which the students at both schools agreed: as far as the mainland is concerned the province is an expensive nuisance and that the only time Northern Irish politics registered is when a bomb exploded in London.

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