Decision Time in Northern Ireland

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And you thought filing your taxes was tough. Householders across Ulster will be checking the fine print on the 75-page Northern Ireland peace accord Tuesday, as several hundred thousand glossy copies of the deal drop onto doormats. It’s the beginning of a British government campaign to encourage people in the province to vote in next month’s referendum -- a campaign that stops short of calling for a “yes” vote. “The dominant political slogan here for a long time has been ‘Ulster Says No,’ so it can be counterproductive to just come out and say it,” said a Northern Ireland Office spokesman.

While the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Sinn Fein back the deal, minority Unionist parties and a splinter group of IRA gunmen have come out strongly against it. “What we will not do... is engage in a process that ignores Britain’s centuries-old subjugation of the Irish nation,” read a statement from the Irish National Liberation Army. Which shows how difficult it will be to achieve the next goal on the road to peace -- the decommissioning of weapons.

As if that didn’t give party leaders enough to argue about, a hot little debate has broken out over whether a visit by President Clinton in mid-May would help or hinder the referendum. Nationalists say it would help; Unionists say it would hinder. “If they think I should go -- and they’ve got the biggest stake and the closest sense of the public -- I would be happy to do it,” Clinton said Monday. If all goes well, he’ll be dispensing up to $100 billion in investment goodies. No doubt Ulster will say yes to that.