The BBC has announced the death of Coleraine UUP councillor Elizabeth (Liz) Johnston.
The almost-simultaneous report that "the NIO Minister Paul Goggins is not prepared to allow parties here to have a mass co-option of new councillors to replace party colleagues who wish to stand down" means that the existing rules for replacing dead or resigning councillors continue to apply.
The possibility therefore exists that there will be a council by-election in Coleraine to replace Liz Johnston. However, in both of the two most recent cases, agreements were reached between the various parties to allow co-options – in Ballymoney in August (the one Jim Allister would 'never run away from' and in Craigavon. These agreements were quite controversial, with both the UUP and Sinn Féin threatening to scupper them by forcing by-elections. In the event neither did.
Coleraine Central, where Liz Johnston was elected, is a largely unionist electoral area. In 2005 the various unionist parties took 77.3% of the vote, nationalists took 16.6% and the Alliance party took 6.1%. So a by-election would certainly return another unionist. But from which party?
The 77.3% unionist vote was divided fairly evenly: 33.8% DUP and 37.6% UUP. So a confident DUP might feel that it could snatch this seat. But there is no confident DUP right now – on the contrary. Coleraine Borough Council currently has no TUV councillor to threaten a by-election (as in neighbouring Ballymoney), but a by-election would allow the TUV to stand, and to take a chunk of the DUP's vote – in earlier contests the TUV has taken around 40% of the DUP vote. This would almost certainly stop the DUP from winning the seat, and would provide yet another electoral humiliation for the party.
So the DUP are unlikely to risk a by-election. Nationalists would only force a by-election out of mischief-making, which is not their style, so it can be assumed that they too will not object to a co-option. And of course the UUP, as beneficiaries of a co-option, will naturally agree to it.
So, yet again, a council seat will be filled without an election. The rate-payers will be glad, but it leaves political commentators and strategists without much idea of the current strengths of the various parties – in particular the TUV – in many areas.