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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 January, 2004, 13:14 GMT
Exit of sceptical politicians

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

The Three Wise Men left it 12 days after the arrival of the baby Jesus to make their appearance at Bethlehem.

The "Three Sceptical Politicians" took just over a month to make their journey from election as Ulster Unionist candidates to conversion to the DUP.

On the eve of the Epiphany (dictionary definition: "any moment of great or sudden revelation"), Jeffrey Donaldson, Norah Beare and Arlene Foster brought Ian Paisley the gift of a potential fourth ministerial position at Stormont.
Jeffrey Donaldson defected to the DUP
Jeffrey Donaldson defected to the DUP

No doubt David Trimble does not regard these three MLAs as very wise.

But their actions were probably enough to convince him it was time to take down the Christmas decorations at Cunningham House.

With the defections over and done with, all the parties are now looking towards the start of the formal review of the Good Friday Agreement, which has been pencilled in for 29 January.

Alliance were first out of the blocks with their submission calling, predictably, for the abolition of unionist/nationalist designations and the adoption of a weighted majority voting system.

This, argues Alliance, would go hand in hand with the formation of a voluntary coalition providing an executive including representatives from both sides of the community, if not all the major parties.

On the one hand, this might be seen as a perfect way to get around the apparently insuperable difficulty of electing a first and deputy first minister in an assembly where the DUP and Sinn Fein each hold a veto on their own side of the chamber.

Initial reactions

On the other, it could be attacked as self serving - given that Alliance would emerge as likely kingmakers in the formation of any coalition, just as they have held the whip hand and the balance of power at Belfast City Council.

On either side of the picture, it would appear anathema to those who currently control the unionist and nationalist cards.

But their initial reactions have been very different.

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness has pronounced himself as "very unimpressed" by the Alliance idea.

What the parties have in common is a desire for wide-ranging changes to the status quo - but when it comes to the detail of those changes they may very well pull in different directions

Speaking to the BBC's Inside Politics programme, he criticised it as an attempt to re-impose majority rule.

However, the DUP, who could also be sidelined by a coalition, were more generous.

Their deputy leader, Peter Robinson, gave the Alliance proposals a qualified welcome and attacked the "total negativity" of those parties which dismissed them out of hand.

The DUP's backroom boys actually attended the Alliance Party's launch of its proposals.

'Painstaking work'

How long the two parties can remain unlikely bedfellows has to be open to doubt.

What the parties have in common is a desire for wide-ranging changes to the status quo - but when it comes to the detail of those changes they may very well pull in different directions.
Rebel MPs Martin Smyth and David Burnside are to resume whip
Rebel MPs Martin Smyth and David Burnside are to resume whip

Interestingly, some of the fiercest critics of Alliance have been the SDLP. They accused Alliance of opening a Pandora's Box, which will be exploited by anti-Agreement elements.

One can imagine those SDLP negotiators, whose celebratory silhouettes were famously captured at the moment the Agreement was sealed, pulling their hair out at the prospect that their painstaking work could be unpicked.

The Ulster Unionists also want to limit the scope of the review. But in the meantime they are trying once again to salve their internal wounds.

The decision by the two erstwhile rebels, Martin Smyth and David Burnside, to resume the UUP parliamentary whip is a necessary first step.

But to return to my somewhat convoluted Epiphany analogy, it looks awfully like closing the stable door after one of the Three Wise Men has already bolted.

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