The death took place in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast on Thursday 5 June of Fermanagh DUP Councillor, Joe Dodds. He was the father of Nigel Dodds, the North's new Finance Minister.
Joe Dodds was a councillor for the Enniskillen District Electoral Area (DEA) of Fermanagh District Council. This ward is almost evenly split between unionism and nationalism: in the 2005 election the outcome was;
Total Unionists: 4,239 (48,6%)
Total Nationalists: 4,070 (46,7%)
Total others: 406 (4,7%)
The Alliance party did not stand – the 'others' were, in fact, a single candidate, Paul Dale, standing for the Socialist Party (NI).
Of the unionist total, the DUP got the greater share (28.2% of the total vote), while the UUP got 20.5%. Sinn Féin, however, with 28.5% of the total vote, were the most successful party in the DEA.
Over the past few years this DEA has been steadily becoming less unionist and more nationalist. In 1993 the combined unionist share was 58.5%; in 1997 this was 56.6%, and in 2001 only 47.9%. The DUP was traditionally the smaller unionist party in the DEA, but when Arlene Foster (now Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment) left the UUP and joined the DUP she took a large part of the old UUP vote with her. Of the DUP's 28.2% in 2005, fully 23.6% was Foster's personal vote. Joe Dodds, with a paltry 400 first preference votes (4.6%) was elected with her transfers.
The nationalist vote has been progressively increasing; 29.5% in 1993, 32.1% in 1997, 43.1% in 2001, and 46.7% in 2005.
Will a by-election take place? If the parties agree, a councillor may be replaced by co-option. The relevant legislation states that, between 14 and 42 days after the 'casual vacancy' occurs (through death, in this case), the council must meet and try to agree on a co-opted replacement. If even one member disagrees, then the vacancy is reported to the Chief Electoral Officer, who presumably must organise a by-election within a particular period.
One of the other parties might insist on an election, for a variety of reasons – the UUP might feel that they could recover the seat that the DUP took from them in 2005 – Sinn Féin might see it as an opportunity to steal the seat from unionism. To some extent, this latter situation may depend on the behind-the-scenes relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin, which remains unclear.
However, is a by-election possible? The new Minister of the Environment, Sammy Wilson, also of the DUP, is apparently planning to remove the possibility of by-elections, as part of the preparation for the switch-over to 11 District Councils in 2011. This has not yet been passed into law, however, so there is still a legal possibility for a by-election to be held.
If a by-election is held to replace Dodds there will be considerable interest, for several reasons:
1. Will the demographic tide in this DEA have continued to flow in nationalism's favour, to the extent that a nationalist candidate will win the seat?
2. If so, can Sinn Féin retain its lead over the SDLP, in order to take the seat?
3. Can the DUP, without Foster's personal vote, remain as the larger of the unionist parties?
4. Will the TUV take a large chunk of the DUP vote, and perhaps deny it the seat?
5. Will other smaller parties stand, and if so, what will their effect be?
The main interest amongst the unionist parties will be the relative performances of the DUP, UUP and TUV, and whether the TUV's result in Dromore was a flash in the pan or a real indication of lasting support. On the wider stage, the interest is whether the relentless 'greening' of Fermanagh will continue, and whether either nationalist party can take another once-unionist seat, thereby helping to ensure that unionism never again can misrule Fermanagh.