Northern News Editor
Former Ulster Unionist Party member Mr Jeffrey Donaldson is poised to join the Democratic Unionist Party this morning, thus altering significantly the anti-agreement unionist balance in any restored assembly and executive.
The DUP also sharply criticised the Taoiseach for warning yesterday that restoration of Stormont was needed to avoid a return to violence.
The party has called a press conference in Stormont for this morning. It now looks certain that Mr Donaldson, who resigned from the Ulster Unionists on December 18th along with assembly members Ms Norah Beare and Ms Arlene Foster, will appear alongside the current-30-strong DUP assembly team.
Mr Donaldson declined to comment last night. "If I were to confirm anything now there would be no point in holding a press conference," he said. However, Mr Sammy Wilson said "anyone could guess" the purpose of this morning's press conference. "I expect you'll see some new faces lined up along the familiar ones."
Mr Donaldson resigned his 20-year membership of the Ulster Unionists just three weeks after winning an assembly seat and bringing in an additional seat on his transfers.
The Lagan Valley MP walked out of the Stormont talks shortly before the Belfast Agreement was concluded in 1998 and he voted No in the subsequent referendum. He has opposed Mr David Trimble's policy ever since.
If all three former UUP assembly members join the DUP it will strengthen yet further the influence of the Rev Ian Paisley.
An additional three members swells the DUP ranks to 33 with the UUP now on 24. Before the November 26th election there were 20 DUP members at Stormont.
The party also stepped up its attack on the Taoiseach yesterday criticising his remarks that political progress was needed urgently to avoid a slip back to conflict on the streets.
Mr Ahern had told David Frost on the BBC: "The danger is that the assembly isn't working. If there is no executive, no sense of ministers working collectively then there is no political system.
"The risk is that people will take back to the streets in one form or another and that's a risk that is too great." He continued: "If you were to have that kind of frustrated period and rejectionist period - that I hope we do not see - then the future would be bleak and you would inevitably get back into some kind of conflict. Let us hope it wouldn't be violence. No society operates without its elected administration."
Mr Ahern said "the will of the people" was that there should be an assembly and an executive.He said there was "a major responsibility on all of the parties in Northern Ireland to work with us in the early months of 2004 to find resolutions to these complex issues".
However, Mr Ian Paisley junior said Mr Ahern was "out of touch with reality" and again insisted the Belfast Agreement was dead.
"His call for the restoration of the failed power-sharing executive shows that he is either unwilling or unable to accept the lessons of the recent past. The executive, as established under the Belfast Agreement, was suspended four times because of the presence in it of armed and active terrorist representatives. What makes Mr Ahern think that the executive can succeed in its fifth chance, when that same party that is allied to a terrorist army is still armed and active?"
Unionists would not be "morally blackmailed" into accepting less than what Mr Ahern was prepared to accept - "a government free from terrorists".