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`Rainbow' coalition narrows gap in run-up to Irish poll

New opinion polls suggest that the result of Ireland's general election next week will be on a knife-edge, with the outgoing "rainbow" coalition rapidly narrowing the lead held by the centre-right opposition alliance.

Two weekend polls found the previous week's 8 per cent lead held by Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats (PDs) under their hard- hitting leader Mary Harney cut to 4 per cent.

The opposition lead could now be narrower following weekend controversy over tough social policy reforms urged by Ms Harney's party. Her call for allowances for single mothers to be redirected to encourage them to stay at home with their own parents has caused unease among her prospective government partners. The Democratic Left accused the PD of "playing to intolerance for political gain" and "targeting the weakest and most vulnerable members of society."

Left-wing coalition parties could hardly conceal their glee at the PD line, which allowed them to reaffirm their radical social concern. This prompted crisis talks between Ms Harney and Mr Ahern on Sunday. Fianna Fail also has many voters in the state sector, where the PDs want to cut 25,000 jobs.

The latest polls show Fianna Fail at 41 per cent; Fine Gael steady at 26 per cent; Labour up two points to 14 per cent; PDs down one at 5 per cent; and Democratic Left unchanged at two.

The improved Labour showing is critical to the government retaining power, as it is now hitting the level needed to retain two-thirds of the record 33 seats it secured in 1992.

The hustings had earlier been dominated by rival tax- cutting pledges, with the opposition's plan for a 5 per cent reduction countered by a broader government plan to reform allowances, tax bands and social insurance levels to lift disposable incomes.

Government parties stressed that their plan would give more, wider relief to the lower paid, with the 15 per cent of top-rate tax-payers receiving assistance only after two years if finances allow.

Current party strengths in the 166-seat Dail elected in 1992 are Fianna Fail 68; Fine Gael 46; Labour 32; PDs 8; Democratic Left 6 and Green Party 1; with five others, including the Ceann Comhairle (Speaker). Sinn Fein has an outside chance of taking its first Dail seat since it won four forty years ago in 1957.

All the major parties have resisted attempts to bring abortion on to the agenda, fearing a repeat of the hounding of individual TDs (MPs) by hard-line campaigners seen throughout the Eighties.

Last week, the conservative Archbishop of Dublin urged a new referendum to outlaw any abortion in Ireland. Dr Desmond Connell said it was "disconcerting" that opposition to abortion was not being reflected in the public positions of political parties.

The new National Party, headed by Limerick dancing teacher Nora Bennis, is backing a "pro-family" anti-abortion line and wants a pounds 100-a-week wage to enable mothers to stay at home with their children.

Irish abortion law has been confused since a 1992 Supreme Court ruling allowed a 14-year-old girl the right to an abortion abroad after hearing that she was a suicide risk.

Three referendums later that year confirmed women's right to information about abortion and travel but rejected a loosely drafted proposal to permit terminations in Ireland where the health, as opposed to the life, of the mother was at risk.