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Ulster faces `No' vote catastrophe

AN INCREASING Unionist swing towards a "no" vote is holding out the possibility of a disastrous result in next week's referendum on the Northern Ireland peace agreement.

A new opinion poll shows that 45 per cent of Unionists intend to vote no, while only 35 per cent are preparing to vote yes. With the count less than a week away, a further 20 per cent are undecided on whether to back the accord.

Even the declaration of an "unequivocal ceasefire" by the Loyalist Volunteer Force, therenegade grouping which has killed almost a dozen Catholics this year, did little to dispel the gloom in official circles about the referendum prospects.

The LVF said the move, announced by armed and masked men in Portadown, Co Armagh, was to encourage a no vote in the referendum. The suspicion is, however, that it may have been prompted not by subtle political calculations but because the two dozen LVF prisoners are anxious to benefit from the early releases only available to inmates whose organisations have ceasefires.

Unless there is a huge swing in the opposite direction, the Irish Times opinion poll figures indicate an indecisive result in Friday's vote. While they point to a yes majority in the northern poll, if a majority of Protestants vote against, it would rob the vote of much of its political authority and leave it vulnerable to attack from the Reverend Ian Paisley and his anti-agreement camp.

Jeffrey Donaldson, one of David Trimble's Unionist MPs, delivered another blow to the Government by announcing that despite extensive contact with Tony Blair he is unable to support the agreement.

Mr Blair is planning a third visit to Northern Ireland next week in a final effort to raise support among the wavering Unionists for a "yes" vote.

Mr Blair's decision to add a third tour of the province on the eve of Thursday's poll underlines the anxieties at Downing Street over the failure to win over Unionists who have yet to decide how to vote.

The reason cited by most of those opposing the agreement was their objection to the early release of paramilitary prisoners. Their anxieties were reinforced by the presence at a Belfast rally of convicted Milltown Cemetery murderer Michael Stone. Indeed, embarrassingly for the Government, Stone's appearance at Ulster Hall coincided and overshadowed the Prime Minister's second visit to Belfast which was meant to give a fillip to the yes vote.

Yesterday, Mr Blair spoke of public "revulsion" at the appearance of Stone, who was on temporary leave from prison whilst serving a life sentence for six murders and four attempted murders. A Downing Street spokesman agreed that it looked "very, very bad" and its timing, on the same evening as the Prime Minister's visit, was "unfortunate to say the least".

While the feeling of pessimism about the success of the accord grew in Ulster it was announced that Tony Blair and the United States president Bill Clinton, in Britain for the G8 Summit of world leaders, were to make a united effort to bolster the peace process. The two men are expected to make an appeal for peace tomorrow.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, and William Hague, the Tory leader, will also make visits to the Province to lend their support to the "yes" campaign, in spite of reservations by leading Tories about the release of prisoners and arrangements for disarming the terrorists.

Sinn Fein warned that the Government's perceived attempts to allay the fears of Unionists by talking tough on decommissioning and the release of prisoners could lead it into political quicksand. Launching its "yes" campaign, chairperson Mitchell McLaughlin said the Government could be trapped by its own rhetoric and "Tony Blair can not allow this to happen". However Sinn Fein did not believe that the Government was moving the goalposts.

The "no" campaigners were increasingly in exultant mood. A senior official of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party claimed that private soundings showed that those as yet undecided were increasingly drifting into the no camp. He added: "The bubble burst, the yes campaign was built on froth and it is dissolving into nothing."