Two items of recent interest in Northern Ireland. First, the DUP and Sinn Fein got together and agreed to abolish the one department controlled by Alliance in the Executive, as of right. Presently Alliance controls two departments, Employment and Learning (DEL) and Justice, with the first being on the basis of the d'Hondt distribution and the second because when Justice was devolved to Northern Ireland the Big Two could only trust giving it to Alliance. Employment and Learning has been divided between two other departments (Education, probably Regional Development). Both the UUP and the SDLP only have a single ministry and they both have many more Assembly members (MLAs) and councillors than Alliance.
Now Justice Minister and Alliance leader David Ford is seeking a guarantee from the Big Two that his ministry will remain in Alliance hands for the remainder of this Assembly's life. This may seem like he is going a tad too far. But it should be remembered that the first time that Alliance was in a power-sharing government, back in 1974, the DUP and the Shinners--or rather the armed wing of the Republican Movement (as the Republicans refer to it or SF/IRA as the unionists refer to it)-- de facto colluded to bring down that government. The IRA went on a bombing offensive and the three main unionist parties cooperated with the Loyalist Association of Workers to bring down the government through a general strike. Former UUP leaderDavid Trimble and his former IRA advisor Sean O'Callaghan used to reminisce about how they both operated against the power-sharing government of 1974. So it may be natural on Ford's part to doubt the veracity and good intentions of the Big Two.
DUP leader Peter Robinson, fresh from pacifying the UUP over Alliance's disproportionate share of the Executive, has now called for unionist unity. As I see it, the UUP has basically two choices: either quit the Executive and go into a vigorous opposition with the SDLP that gives the voters a real alternative to the Big Two or negotiate the best terms possible for a merger. But don't expect Tom Elliot and present leadership of the UUP to get a good deal now. The best prizes were handed out to the UUPers who defected from Trimble's leadership in 2000 led by Jeffrey Donaldson. The UUP is today in the same position that the DUP was in under the leadership of Ian Paisley in the 1970s. Except that Paisley had his Free Presbyterian Church to fall back upon both as alternative employment and as an irreducible membership base for his party. The UUP has no similar base. It could join with the tiny Conservative Party, but that was already tried and failed.