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Blair and Major set to bolster `yes' campaign

THE DEBATE within the Unionist and Protestant community over the Good Friday agreement raged on yesterday with opposing factions characterising it as either the best way ahead or a constitutional calamity.

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is due in Belfast today, together with John Major, for a visit which the pro-agreement forces hope will galvanise a so-far lacklustre campaign leading up to the May 22nd referendums.

The "yes" campaign has to date been a quiet affair, partly because many of those in favour tend to support it not with great enthusiasm but because they feel it is the least- worst, or possibly the only option, available.

By contrast the "no" campaign, unsurprisingly for an enterprise led by the Rev Ian Paisley, has been much more conspicuous and vociferous. But although it has generated more activity it has yet to create a sense of momentum or a bandwagon effect within Unionism.

The Presbyterian church, the largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland, yesterday delivered a judgement on the agreement which stopped short of calling for a "yes" vote. Its detailed critique of the accord none the less applauded many parts of it, leaving the impression that the church broadly favoured the accord. Its key sentence read: "The agreement does not represent defeat or assimilation but is rather a political accommodation which could be a way out of the darkness of the last 30 years into a better future."

On the Unionist political front the language deployed was less restrained. A loose confederation of anti-agreement elements including Mr Paisley's party, Robert McCartney's UK Unionists and dissenting members of David Trimble's Ulster Unionists, formally launched their campaign with the slogan "It's right to say no."

Mr McCartney declared: "It is a positive campaign. A `yes' vote means the end of our link with Britain." Of Mr Trimble he said: "This man is putty in the hands of experienced negotiators."

William Ross, one of Mr Trimble's MPs, said: "I intend to stick with this until my party comes to its senses."

A pointed rejoinder to the "no" campaign came from the Progressive Unionist Party, some of whose leading members have served prison sentences for involvement in loyalist violence.

Billy Hutchinson, a party spokesman, said: "All of those people out there in the `no' campaign had better take responsibility. If they are going to frighten people with a united Ireland then they will be responsible for creating more deaths. Those people who say we are on a road to a united Ireland had better realise that they are making people very, very nervous and this is making people pull triggers."

Meanwhile, six republican prisoners were transferred from British to Irish jails yesterday.