Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland first-time voters recall making their mark in Good Friday Agreement

By Leona O'Neill

It was a day that would define Northern Ireland's future. And for those who turned 18 in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement referendum, their first vote would be a crucial one.

On May 22, 1998, nearly a million people here headed to polling stations to cast their verdict on the peace deal.

For many it was just another trip to the ballot box, but for first-time voters it was a hugely significant day that would shape their future.

Belfast man Neil Robertson (38) was in the midst of his A-levels when the referendum was called.

"I was very preoccupied with studying; however, I was studying politics so had more than a passing interest," he recalled.

"Everything I remember was hugely positive, apart from the DUP and Ian Paisley's 'Vote No' campaign.

"I remember asking my teacher and parents why they (DUP) were so opposed and no one was able to give me a viable and understandable answer.

"I got the impression they didn't want to explore peace and were being dissenters just because everyone else was voting for it."

Neil remembers how his plans to vote were overshadowed by exam worries.

"I actually had an exam on the morning of referendum day so I was more concerned with getting that over and done with," he added.

"But once I got home my parents made quite a big deal of going to vote, as it was my first time in such a major event.

"I voted yes. I had no notion of voting no as at the time I couldn't see any downfalls. I remember watching television most of the following day waiting for the results to come in and all the coverage it got both locally and around the world.

"I felt it was a monumental and defining day. It almost felt surreal, to be honest, after so many years of conflict and harm inflicted by all involved, that we were on the path to settle the differences and see a brighter future for everyone."

Twenty years on, he is certain he made the right decision.

"I would definitely vote yes again," he added.

"History has proved that fighting solves nothing and as long as all sides involved agree to the fact that they're going to have to compromise, I believe that anything is achievable."

Roisin Shanks (37) from Ballymagorry in Co Tyrone voted on what was her 18th birthday.

"I was going through my A-levels and remember registering to vote as soon as practically possible in the knowledge that the referendum was going to be held on my 18th birthday," she said.

"I remember we were sent a video, possibly by the NIO, to instruct first-time voters.

"Whilst I was aware the first IRA ceasefire had failed, I remember thinking that it felt that everyone who was important was putting their weight behind the agreement.

"The DUP didn't represent anyone I knew (or so I felt then), and the baying of Ian Paisley was nothing out of the ordinary, and I didn't feel that there was any way that 'the people' wouldn't support the Agreement."

Two decades later, Roisin recalls the day clearly.

"I remember going to the polling station early as my parents were going before work," she explained.

"It was held in a primary school in the nearby village of Artigarvan. I felt pretty euphoric as I came out of the polling station, but also with a strange sense of disappointment that it was a blunt pencil that I had to use to cast my vote."

She voted in favour of the Agreement, and said she would "unquestionably" vote the same way again.

She added: "I felt it was a chance for everyone to publicly reject violence and validate the political leadership of the time. I never thought it wouldn't be accepted, because it just made sense."

Others were far from convinced, though.

Omagh-born Clive McFarland (left) opposed the Agreement, and the former DUP councillor said that, given the chance today, he would vote no again.

"I felt that the issue of prisoner releases was a problem, that it was wrong," he said.

"Whilst there was a guarantee that prisoners would be released, the wording around decommissioning was much looser. The fear, quite rightly, was that it could be exploited.

"If I could vote again, I would still vote no.

"Ultimately, some of the bigger ticket issues - the prisoner releases, the changes made to the police and the removal of the (RUC) name - were wrong then and would still be wrong now."

Ryan Feeney (38) from Faughanvale was a "proud" yes voter.

He recalls being more worried about missing out on free tickets for a special concert supporting the yes vote than the poll itself.

"There was a real sense of optimism," he said.

"Everyone was talking about the agreement and the opportunity it afforded. The picture of Bono with David Trimble and John Hume at the Waterfront Hall captured most of the media attention in the days before the referendum.

"My friends and I didn't discuss the vote itself that much, just the disappointment that we didn't get to go to the concert with U2 and Ash.

"I was fascinated by the campaign and constantly watched the TV coverage and read the papers. It was a simpler time - no social media."

Ryan said he voted at Faughanvale Primary School in the early evening for the first time alongside his father.

"There were campaigners from both sides outside the school gates trying to canvass for votes," he remembered.

"The voting process itself was a slight anti-climax and when we walked out of the school after voting I asked my father: 'Is that it?'. To which he responded: 'What did you expect, George Mitchell, Tony and Bertie to walk in and personally thank you'.

"I proudly voted yes and I would do again.

"I remember feeling that it was a defining day. I remember my parents and older family members being emotional that the yes vote was so high. I can't remember any cynicism at that stage of the peace process, all I can recall was a real sense of hope."

Tyrone-born Colin Dardis (38), who voted yes, said he felt Northern Ireland was at a real turning point around the time of the referendum.

"I remember it was quite exciting," he said.

"It really felt that the country was on the cusp of a breakthrough after so long, that politics had finally won. Although amidst this, there was a great worry in case the Agreement was voted down: what would happen then?

"It didn't feel like there was any real alternative future besides the Agreement."

Colin had a genuine interest in politics, even as a teenager.

"Beforehand, I remember copies of the Agreement being sent to every home," he said.

Someone bought one into school, and we sat around the lunch table debating it.

"I doubt any of us had read it cover to cover, but we watched the news and read the papers; we knew what promise and potential it beheld.

"I voted yes on the day and I would absolutely vote that way again.

"I felt this was a turning point after being stuck in the quagmire of violence for decades. I think the turnout on the day reflects this.

"For those older than myself, who had seen far worse than I ever did, it must have seemed like a miracle."

Derry mother-of-two Orla Kelly (39) said she was glad she voted yes in the referendum, for the sake of her children who were to be born years later.

"I don't think I realised the importance of the Good Friday Agreement at the time," she said.

"I grew up just outside the Bogside and it was more what was happening to the people every day on the streets and in their homes that I remember.

"I grew up with my home being raided at least once a week and that's probably the only difference I saw. That stopped.

"I've always voted for Sinn Fein in the hope that Catholics would be given a voice and I see that happening more so in the last few years.

"I'm glad the Good Friday Agreement happened as I'm a mother and I'd never want my kids go through the things we did.

"I look forward to Stormont finally getting back up and running."

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