>From CNN: May 22, 1998 Web posted at: 10:24 p.m. EDT (0224 GMT) BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- An exit poll indicates that a large majority of voters on both sides of the Irish border have voted to support a peace agreement that would end 30 years of bloodshed between Protestants and Catholics. The results of the poll, which was commissioned by Radio Television Eire (RTE) in Dublin, found that 73 percent of the voters in Northern Ireland and 96 percent in the Irish Republic voted "Yes" on the referendum. Of particular interest was the vote among Northern Ireland Protestants. The exit poll shows they favored the peace agreement by a narrow 51-49 margin. Catholic voters in Northern Ireland were almost unanimous in their support of the agreement, with 99 percent in favor. The exit poll, the first ever in Ireland, was based on interviews conducted with more than 1,750 people in Northern Ireland at 90 polling stations in all 18 constituencies, and more than 2,000 people at 150 polling stations in all 41 constituencies in the Irish Republic. The official results of Friday's voting will not be known until Saturday afternoon, when the votes have been tallied at a central counting center in Balmoral, south Belfast. Big turnout More than 70 percent of the nearly 4 million eligible voters -- 1.2 million in the north and 2.8 million in the south -- turned out Friday to vote on the peace agreement hammered out by eight parties and the British and Irish governments. The agreement would create a government in Northern Ireland that would balance Protestant and Catholic rights and obligations. Opinion polls leading up to the first all-Ireland vote in 80 years indicated an overwhelming "Yes" vote in the south and broad support in the north. But it also showed Protestants, who make up 55 percent of the population in the north, were divided over whether to support the agreement. "I voted 'Yes' and did it for my children," said Linda McShane, 37, after casting her ballot in Catholic west Belfast. "'Yes' is everything for the future, and there is only more death and destruction with a 'No' vote." In south Belfast, Protestant mother Lois McDonald said she had backed the accord. "I voted 'Yes' because I think we have had enough," she told Reuters. "I think everybody has said 'No' for too long. It's time to say 'Yes.'" But in Saintfield, a village 12 miles south of Belfast, Protestant Billy McSorley, 25, said he opposed the deal. "I voted 'No' because I think we are on the road to a united Ireland, which we don't want," he said. Territorial claim also decided Politicians have warned that anything less than a strong endorsement from the north could wreck the chances of the peace agreement working properly. But Protestant opponents, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, campaigned for a "No" majority in the Protestant community, thus rendering the agreement, even if it passed overall, unworkable. "If a majority of the majority opposes this so-called agreement, it can never be made to work," Paisley said. Although passage of the referendum requires only a simple majority, David Trimble, leader of the main Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, said an overwhelming "Yes" vote would augur well for the success of the agreement. The referendum was not the only issue being decided Friday. Voters in the Irish Republic also voted on an extraordinary gesture to the north's pro-British Protestants: a constitutional amendment dropping the Republic's territorial claim on the six counties of Northern Ireland. "It is their opportunity to influence events," said Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. "It is an appointment that the Irish people have with history." A legacy of death, destruction If the agreement is approved, Northern Ireland would vote again June 25 to elect 108 members of a new Assembly. Unlike the Protestant-dominated legislature that ran Northern Ireland for a half-century until 1972, this one would require consent on any major decisions from both pro-British Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists. The Northern Ireland government also would be required to cooperate with the Irish Republic's government on such policies as agriculture, waterways and tourism. The peace agreement is designed to bridge the divisions of religion and nationality that have fueled three decades of violence, leaving 3,400 dead, 40,000 injured and yearly property damage in the tens of millions of dollars. The negotiating parties, under the chairmanship of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, tried to design a structure that accepts the legitimacy of conflicting national allegiances while forcing the two sides to work together on the practical affairs of government. For the Irish Republican Army and its allied Sinn Fein party, agreement meant giving up any immediate hope of a united Ireland. Pro-British unionists, meanwhile, had to abandon their dream of returning to simple majority rule. 'Giving ourselves better odds' Many voters balked at abandoning those cherished goals. "For 30 years, nationalist people were crucified," said Ann Davey, who registered "a very resounding no" vote in the Catholic Falls area of Belfast. "We are not going to get a united Ireland, so I see nothing constructive coming out of this," she said. But Protestant Ross Murray -- who at 30 is as old as the "troubles" -- voted in favor of the agreement, "for my three children." "This is the only chance for peace we have at the minute," he said. "Sure, life's a gamble. But this way, we are maybe giving ourselves better odds." Correspondent Christiane Amanpour, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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