The council by-election in Dromore on Wednesday 13 February can be seen either as a victory for Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice party (who successfully blocked their arch-rivals, the DUP, from winning), or as a defeat (they did not win the election).
However, at council level, and perhaps more widely in Northern Ireland, the TUV is essentially a protest movement – protesting in the short term against the DUP-Sinn Féin coalition that holds the top jobs in the executive, but also protesting in the long term against all compromises with nationalism (one description of the TUV is that it is the party for those who miss the B Specials).
For its founder and chief spokesman, Jim Allister, the success or failure of the TUV has a more direct importance. Because he is an MEP, elected to the European Parliament in 2004 as the DUP candidate, and as chosen successor to Ian Paisley. His whole political future now rests on the support that he can muster via the TUV. Before he established the party there was a chance that he could remain as an independent unionist MEP, slightly critical of the DUP, but from the same political family. Now that he has set up a party specifically to target the DUP, he is prey.
So the performance of the TUV gives a foresight of the support that Allister will get in 2009 when his seat is up for re-election.
In Dromore the TUV received 19,6% of the vote, but this was not a representative area. Dromore is much more unionist than the average, with 72% of its electorate voting for one or other unionist candidate, against a Northern Ireland-wide figure of 48,7% in the 2007 Assembly election. Admittedly, in European Parliament elections, with only three seats at stake, voters tend to concentrate on electable candidates, as the minor parties and independents have no chance at all. But even in the last European Parliament elections the unionist total only reached 48,6%.
So if Allister can only attract 27% of the unionists of Dromore (i.e. 19,6% of 72%), he may have trouble in 2009. If he gets the same proportion of unionist votes then, he will barely achieve 13% of the total vote (i.e. 27% of 48,6%). And on that low percentage, he is likely to be eliminated early, as the four main parties will probably all receive more than that. If the bad blood between Allister and the DUP continues to fester, his voters may not transfer in sufficient numbers to carry the other two unionist parties beyond the SDLP candidate, and hence one of them (the UUP, probably) will be the next to be eliminated, leaving Northern Ireland with two nationalist MEPs for the first time ever. The psychological value to nationalism and the damage to unionism, of sending 2 nationalists and one unionist to Strasbourg cannot be underestimated. Allister may turn out to be an important nail in unionism's coffin.