TUV leader Jim Allister has indicated that his party will force a Ballymoney council by-election after the resignation last week of DUP councillor Roy Wilson. Allister said that: "my understanding is that councillor has resigned not just from the council but from the DUP because of his principled objection to the DUP's present political stance. Of course it throws up the opportunity of a by-election, and we're not ones to run away from such opportunities. I look forward to that testing of the water in a constituency which is for some reason attracting increasing interest."
The DUP, of course, claim that Wilson had not resigned from the party and his decision was a personal matter unconnected with its power-sharing policy.
Thanks to its existing councillor on Ballymoney Council, Audrey Patterson, the TUV can block the co-option of a replacement for Wilson. Legislation that would have stopped by-elections in the run-up to the 2011 elections to the new larger councils has apparently not yet been enacted, and so if the council cannot agree unanimously to a co-option a by-election must be held.
Roy Wilson was elected in 2005 in the Bann Valley electoral area. The DUP then took 43.3% of the vote in Bann Valley, leaving the UUP far behind on 12.4%. But, not too far behind the DUP was Sinn Féin on 33.7%. On previous outings (only two, of course: Dromore and the European Parliament) the TUV has taken over 40% of the aggregate DUP/TUV vote (call it the extreme unionist vote) – almost 43% of that aggregate only a month ago! So if they eat into the DUP vote in Bann Valley in a similar fashion, the outcome could be that neither the DUP nor the TUV take the seat, and it is won by Sinn Féin.
Neither in Dromore – a safe unionist seat – nor in the European Parliament did Allister’s intervention actually hand a seat to nationalists (though he did hand them a large propaganda victory in the European elections). But Bann Valley is at least 44% nationalist and if the transfers do not fall correctly Sinn Féin could pick up the seat, and Allister will earn the hatred of many extremist unionists in exactly the area (North Antrim) where he will be keen to woo them.
Allister is thus playing a high-risk game. If he does force the by-election and the TUV wins it (which would need a DUP meltdown of catastrophic proportions) then he would be a shoe-in for the North Antrim seat in the Westminster election. But if he forces the by-election and Sinn Féin wins the seat then he will be branded as a splitter and will lose a lot of his support, thus calling into question his chances in the Westminster election. If he does not quickly rule out the forcing of a by-election then he will be seen as a ditherer, but if he waits too long and then rules it out he will also be seen as too scared to fight in his own back-garden. Maybe he will come to regret his rash bravado about the “testing of the water” in North Antrim.