Last Friday (3 October) Charlie McHugh, a Sinn Féin Councillor for the Derg DEA of Strabane District Council died. He had been a Councillor since 1985 and Chairperson in 2000-2001.
Although Strabane has a clear nationalist majority (10 nationalists to 5 unionists, with one independent), the recent experience in Enniskillen shows that it takes only one Councillor to object to a co-option in order to force a by-election. So far the necessary legislation to make co-option automatic (in preparation for the local government reforms that will come in 2011) has not yet been passed, and thus by-elections are still possible.
In Derg DEA the balance between nationalists and unionists is a bit tighter than in the DC as a whole. In 2005 Derg was split 47.7% unionist to 52.3% nationalist. The DEA had a unionist majority in the past, and this continued up to as recently as 1997 when unionists got 50.7% of the vote. Since Charlie McHugh was elected in 1985 he has watched the unionist share of Derg's vote drop from 56% to 48%, and the nationalist share rise from 44% to 52%.
So within recent memory this was a 'majority unionist' DEA. Older unionists may think that the recent two elections, in which nationalists won a majority, were an anomaly, and that they could re-gain their previous majority. They may, therefore, be tempted to force a by-election instead of a co-option.
There are two main arguments against this. Firstly the electoral trend is following the demographic trend in this area. There is no longer a unionist majority in Derg, and there will probably never again be one. Secondly, the proportion of the nationalist vote that goes to Sinn Féin (around 80%) is far greater than that of the DUP within the unionist vote (60%). So in a straight one-seat election Sinn Féin would win a larger proportion of a larger vote, and thus take the seat unless the SDLP votes fail to transfer to Sinn Féin, and the UUP's votes transfer almost entirely to the DUP. This is highly unlikely, and less so after the bitterness of Enniskillen.
For psychological reasons the DUP will not want to be seen to lose to Sinn Féin at this time, and the unknown factor presented by the TUV make a by-election even riskier. Yet, as the predominant unionist party in the DEA they would be expected to at least fight the election if it is called. However, they can point to their 'outrage' when the UUP forced a by-election in Enniskillen after the death of one of their councillors, and claim that their policy is one of co-option in the case of the death of a councillor. On the other hand, 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.