THE Good Friday peace agreement for Northern Ireland is coming under heavy fire from its opponents as the date for the referendum north and south of the border now lies less than a month away.

And for its brokers, the British and Irish governments, and for the parties that thrashed out the deal, these are ominous days as their hopes and efforts come under daily assault.

For now we see the main loyalist party, David Trimble's Ulster Unionists, riven by the rebellion of three of its MPs who last night appeared on the strident "No" platform of Dr Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

We see, too, turmoil and key resignations from the Parades Commission amid accusations that it has been gagged by Tony Blair from announcing which of Ulster's controversial marches ought to be banned this year.

And we see continuing instances of what injustices would have to be condoned for the sake of this deal - as, once more, issue of the early release of jailed terrorist killers is highlighted today by the disclosure that five IRA murderers are to be flown from Britain to Ireland to serve the final years of their life sentences. Yet, though all of this may be fuel for the flames of controversy over the Northern Ireland peace agreement, one fact stands out against this background of fierce political agitation and the unjust imperfections of the deal which will have to be accepted if it is to be the basis of a lasting peace settlement for Ulster.

That is that the ordinary people of Ireland have yet to have their say.

And while that hope seems threatened and jeopardised at very turn, this is worth remembering.

It is worth noting, too, that public opinion polls suggest that on both sides of the border, the ordinary people, the thus-far silent majority, are prepared to grasp this deal, warts and all, and give peace a chance.

If they do and if they do so convincingly, they will strip the mandate of bigotry and historical hatreds from every bellowing political die-hard in Ireland, loyalist or republican, and they will leave every recalcitrant terrorist with a gun with no cause to fight for.

These, then, may be tough times for the peace deal, but the difficulties and din it is surrounded by at present may yet prove to be the dying spasms of Ireland's political dinosaurs.

Converted for the new archive on 14 July 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.