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.