Irish PM Ahern has all-party support for Yes vote in poll

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IN SELLING the peace deal south of the border, Bertie Ahern has a head start over Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble in the north; he can count on the unanimous support of the seven main parties in the Dail.

Sources in his own Fianna Fail (FF) party say no special conference is planned to secure its approval for the deal before the referendum expected on 22 May or soon after.

Mr Ahern will rely on his immense personal authority in the party, and the momentum for agreement built up since Albert Reynolds began the present strategy of advancing peace, luring Sinn Fein and the IRA into the constitutional fold.

Mr Ahern must placate a minority of sceptical backbenchers within FF, and independents unhappy with the compromises he is considering. His Dail majority is down to one after two recent by-election defeats. Last month, concerned backbenchers from traditionally "green" border constituencies complained that FF's parliamentary party was getting no signal of changes planned, but since then party dissent has seemingly faded out.

It is likely that the Dail itself will be recalled quickly from its Easter recess to clear the way for the vote. An Irish Sunday Independent poll last month showed 51 per cent backing for the emerging deal, 11 per cent against and 34 per cent undecided.

A huge boost for the "Yes" campaign would be provided by a visit to Ireland by President Clinton, which SDLP leader John Hume was advised may come on 15-17 May. Political opposition to changing the territorial claim over Northern Ireland contained in the existing Articles 2 and 3* of the Constitution (defining the Irish state as all 32 counties of the island) comes from the Irish Sovereignty Campaign, a loose coalition including artist Robert Ballagh, who designs the Republic's postage stamps. Last week he complained that relinquishing the Irish claim meant that British sovereignty emanating from the Act of Union would be left unchallenged: "The Irish will be saying the British right to rule in Ireland is superior."

American-funded opposition comes from an older generation of entrenched conservative nationalists, who took out large advertisements in Dublin papers on Thursday arguing that 2 and 3 "enshrine the right of the Irish people to self-determination. Don't buckle to British pressure to dilute this sacred right".

Against this, Mr Ahern will say that the aim of removing the border remains, a point made even as he helped to announce Friday's deal. "My ultimate aspiration remains the coming together of all the people of Ireland peacefully and by consent," he said.

*Article 2 of the 1937 Irish Constitution reads: "The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas." Article 3 says: "Pending the reintegration of the national territory, and without prejudice to the right of the Parliament and Government established by this Constitution to exercise jurisdiction over the whole of that territory, the laws enacted by that Parliament shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws of Saorstat Eireann and the like extra-territorial effect."