On 12 December an election will take place in one of the smallest and most remote places in Ireland, the Glens electoral area of Moyle, in the extreme north-east of the island. The election will involve an electorate of around 4,000 people, and will change precisely nothing. Yet even such a marginal electoral event can be interesting, and the Glens by-election is no different.
Firstly, though, why will it change nothing? Well, the outgoing councillor was a nationalist (Sinn Féin's Marie McKeegan), and she will be replaced by a nationalist (that much is certain, as all of the candidates are nationalists). So the balance of power on Moyle District Council will not change – it currently has a nationalist majority, with 9 nationalists against 6 unionists.
The reason for the by-election is that, as the Irish News of 23/10/2007 put it:
Sinn Fein councillor Marie McKeegan formally resigned her seat in Moyle Council last night. Ms McKeegan, from Cushendun, announced she was stepping down at yesterday’s council meeting although she will stay as a member of the party.
The rumour mill, of course, linked McKeegan with other Sinn Féin members who have resigned in protest at the party's endorsement of the PSNI. But since McKeegan herself has kept quiet since her resignation, we have no way of knowing if this is a factor in her case.
The Glens district electoral area (DEA) is one of the most nationalist in the whole of Northern Ireland. While unionist candidates do stand here in most elections, they have never won a seat in living memory, and have not put forward a candidate for this by-election. There are around 200 unionist votes in the DEA, and with no hope of a transfer, they have no chance of ever getting elected here. Ironically, the other side of Moyle, the Giant's Causeway DEA is effectively 100% unionist, and here the nationalist parties do not put up candidates. It seems that little Moyle is the most geographically divided district in the north.
Three candidates are standing; one from the SDLP, one from Sinn Féin, and an independent candidate. The independent candidate, James McCarry, used to be a Sinn Féin councillor, but left the party and then lost his seat. He stood in the 2001 Council election as an independent, but was not elected. He did not stand in 2005, so what has tempted him back into the fray now? He certainly has some gripes with Sinn Féin, but has not been openly linked to the 'republican dissident' scene. Nonetheless, standing against a Sinn Féin candidate in a by-election is sufficient evidence of dissidence for most people! So does he perhaps hope to benefit from a perceived growth in republican discontent due to Sinn Féin's endorsement of the PSNI? Even if he does, is there enough discontent to get him elected? The number of votes he gets will be very interesting to see.
The seat should go to Sinn Féin. In 2005 they won almost half of the votes in the Glens – 47%, to the SDLP's 30%. Independent nationalist Randal McDonnell got nearly 16%, and the remainder, less than 8% went to the sole unionist candidate. The unionists will probably not turn out on the day, and Randal McDonnell's voters are a bit of a mystery. If they vote for the SDLP candidate (a son or husband of the SDLP's existing Glen's councillor!), then he might win, especially if McCarry splits the Sinn Féin vote. In 2005 McDonnell was elected on the first count, and thus the results do no show which candidates might have transferred to him, or to whom his votes might have transferred. However, the SDLP have been in decline in this DEA for some time, and standing a family member of their existing councillor smacks a little bit of desperation, or lack of membership.
In all likelihood the turn-out will be very low. The seat was Sinn Féin's, and they are the largest party in the DEA, so the other voters might feel that their votes would not change much. The 200 unionists will stay at home. Only if McCarry appears to be making waves will the Sinn Féin voters come out in force to try to stop him, but so far he has produced only ripples.
A poor showing for McCarry will strengthen Sinn Féin's hand, and discourage other anti-Sinn Féin republicans. A better than expected vote for Sinn Féin would represent an endorsement from a strongly republican area – the first such endorsement since the restoration of the Executive in May 2007. A poor showing for the SDLP would simply confirm to many people that it is a party in terminal decline. So even in this obscure corner of the country there are bigger issues at stake.