Politics: Blair spearheads drive for `Yes' vote in Ulster

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A NUMBER of initiatives are being planned to boost the Yes campaign for the 22 May referendums, amid concerns that opinion in the Protestant community has yet to swing decisively in favour of the Good Friday agreement.

Tony Blair will pay a second visit to Belfast later this week, while Chancellor Gordon Brown is planning a multi-million pound package aimed at creating employment in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, in an independent initiative two Belfast Protestant ministers will today announce the names of 150 ministers and 100 lay leaders who are recommending a Yes vote. All have subscribed to a declaration which states: "Whilst there are parts of the agreement which are unclear or even unsatisfactory, we believe that the agreement offers an opportunity for a new beginning for our country."

It has become obvious that both northern and southern nationalists are virtually unanimous in their support for the accord. But with less than two weeks to go to the vital referendums on the agreement, the signs are that Protestant and Unionist opinion is evenly balanced, with a great many still unsure of how to vote.

A phone-in programme in which Tony Blair answered questions on Belfast's Downtown Radio yesterday confirmed the sense of a high level of Unionist anxiety. The pattern of questions, apparently mainly from Protestant callers, reflected concerns about the sincerity of the republican movement's commitment to democracy, the early release of prisoners and the future of the RUC.

The Prime Minister said there was no plan to disband the RUC, assuring callers that prisoners would only be released from jails, on licence, if both the individuals and their organisation had given up violence.

He insisted there would be no fudging on the arms decommissioning issue, saying of the possibility of Sinn Fein taking office: "We can't have a situation where people who have not given up the path of violence are taking office in the Northern Ireland government."

He also promised "an absolute and determined will on behalf of the Government to clean up whatever dissident or disparate splinter elements there may be of these paramilitary organisations."

The triumphant welcome given to IRA prisoners, including members of the Balcombe Street gang, at Sinn Fein's weekend conference was seen as a setback to the Unionist Yes campaign.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said: "The decision of the Secretary of State to release IRA terrorists so they could attend a meeting of Sinn Fein/IRA is going to have a negative impact. It ties in with a lot of similar actions in which she has shown considerable indulgence to republicans but considerable insensitivity towards Unionists."

Meanwhile, up to 400 prison officers staged demonstrations outside jails in Northern Ireland in protest against suggestions by the operational director of prison services, Martin Mogg, that some may be opposed to the agreement.