Friday 17 October 2008

A by-election in Derg?

On 6 October this blog reported on the death of Sinn Féin councillor Charlie McHugh, who represented the Derg DEA on Strabane District Council. The conclusion of this blog was that "the UUP, having been embarrassed by their loss in Enniskillen and the accompanying negative reaction to their calling of the by-election, will probably not want to repeat the exercise. Expect, therefore, a quiet co-option."

It seems, however, that we may have spoken too soon.

The Ulster Herald reported on 16 October that the UUP may in fact force a by-election in Derg. It reports that "the Derg UUP bloc will meet over the next few days", and that "it is expected that a decision will be taken to oppose the co-option of a Sinn Féin candidate to the Council seat."

Given the fraught relations between the various unionist parties, a failure by any of them to contest a by-election such as Derg would be seen as a sign of weakness. Both the TUV and the DUP may, therefore, be expected to stand – however the recent on-off talk of an electoral pact between the UUP and the TUV may play a part. The TUV may 'stand down' in the interests of 'unionist solidarity', and recommend its supporters to vote for the UUP. Which they won't, of course, because the TUV are anti-agreement, and the UUP is supposed to be pro-agreement.

However, if the TUV decide to stand, the name being mentioned is Hazlett Lynch from Newtownstewart, who has previously supported other anti-agreement parties such as the UKUP, but has never yet stood for election.

The decision on co-option will be taken at the November 11 meeting of Strabane District Council, at which Sinn Féin will propose a co-option, and maybe the UUP will force an election. One vote is sufficient to force a by-election – the UUP currently have two councillors, and the DUP have three. Since Sinn Féin alone have six councillors (Charlie McHugh was a seventh); the SDLP have two, and there is one independent republican councillor, the actual outcome of the possible by-election is irrelevant.

If the UUP do force a by-election, they would presumably be basing their hopes on the fact that in 2005 the combined unionist vote in Derg was only 4.6% less than the combined nationalist vote (47.7% to 52.3%). They may hope that if the turn-out works in their favour and unionists can be incited to vote, they could steal the seat from nationalism, which they would see as a propaganda victory.

However, the profile of the DEA does not look favourable to unionist hopes. It has become progressively more nationalist over the years – less than 20 years ago it was almost 60% unionist (1989: 59.1%), but this has slipped downwards as the demography of the area has become increasingly Catholic. The unionist voters are older, and dying out. In the 2001 Census, the DEA had a clear Catholic majority; 55.4% against 44.2% Protestant (Census table KS07BW), but above the age of 65 there was a Protestant majority (Census table s305). These voters will be increasingly dying, and being replaced in the electorate by those who were aged between 10 and 18 in 2001 – and these latter are over 60% Catholic. So if there has been any evolution in the unionist and nationalist shares of the electorate since 2005, it is likely that it favours nationalism.

Nonetheless, on the day of the by-election, if it comes, the contest will be decided as much by turn-out as by demography. If one of the unionist parties pulls a stunt (like standing Arlene Foster in Enniskillen), then it may benefit through the increased turnout that this might bring. But if the various unionist parties merely stand their habitual low-profile candidates, the seat ought to remain in Sinn Féin's hands.


Anonymous said...

The independent on SDC is not an 'independent republican' but merely an independent.

Horseman said...


I disagree. While the electoral legislation no longer allows candidates to use names that are not registered (and thus cannot call themselves generic things like 'independent republican'), they can still actually be an independent republican. The individual in question in Strabane is James O'Kane, who comes from a well-known republican family. His brother had also been a councillor, and was a strong lifelong republican - member of the "Anti-Partition League", and interned in 1957 as an untried Republican political prisoner.

James' father was also strongly republican, and had joined the Irish Volunteers in the Mullan Field, Strabane, at a review by Sir Roger Casement in 1912.

James' sister-in-law (Rose Devine) was the daughter of Bernard Devine, the holder of IRA War of Independence and Black and Tan Campaign Medals.

Given this pedigree, despite his 'official' description of 'independent', I think I am quite justified in calling him an independent republican.

Anonymous said...

It may well be the case that Mr O kane has family 'links' to republicanism, however, before the legislation preventing alignment to a non listed party came into being, he never listed himself as an Independent 'Republican' when he had the chance.

Furthermore he aligned himself on many occasions with the unionist bloc on SDC when it came to casting his vote, not to mention his many abstentions on matters of relevance to the republican/nationalist community.

Horseman said...


Of course O'Kane has voted in the same direction as the unionist block on occasions (for example in condemning dissident violence) - but so have Sinn Féin members! It demonstrates nothing.

99.9% of SDC business is entirely local non-controversial stuff. O'Kane acts as a local councillor, agreeing banal minutes, discussing parking problems and letters of condolence. His 'proposing' and 'seconding' record is of interest here, though. He very frequently is seconded by, or himself seconds proposals by, Sinn Féin members of SDC. His voting record is almost indistinguishable from a SF member.

The vote in 2005 on SDC nominations to the District Policing Partnership are also revealing. The unionists and the SDLP nominated each other. SF and O'Kane abstained.

I am aware of no occasion when O'Kane has voted with, or supported, any position that could be deemed 'unionist'; but he always supports cross-border co-operation.

To be frank, given the limited powers of SDC, and the simple fact that unionists have 'lost' it, issues related to constitutional preference rarely come up - neither side proposes 'constitutional' motions, as both know where they stand.

Unless you can come up with some evidence of O'Kane's 'abstention on matters of relevance to the republican/nationalist community', I will continue to regard him as a republican, albeit a moderate and independent one.

Anonymous said...

Why did he not declare himself as a republican when he could?

My points are garnered towards the era when sinn fein first entered the council in 1985, when it was a unionist majority council.