The deal that had apparently been agreed between the TUV and the DUP in August to avoid by-elections in Ballymoney and Craigavon has come unstuck. Unfortunately for the TUV, the deal came unstuck after they had kept their part of the arrangement, by not opposing the co-option of the DUP's Robert Halliday to the vacant seat in Ballymoney. The DUP broke the deal, by failing to second the proposal to co-opt the TUV's David Calvert (an ex-DUP defector to the TUV) to replace Mark Russell (another ex-DUP defector to the TUV) in Craigavon, and by proposing another candidate, the politically-independent community worker Bruce Kidd.
The UUP also proposed a candidate for co-option, the novelty candidate Harry Hamilton, better known as a Freddie Mercury impersonator. The UUP opposed the co-option of Kidd, and the DUP returned the compliment by opposing Hamilton. "This was payback by the UUP for the DUP's refusal of a co-option in Dromore last year," said SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly.
A by-election will therefore have to take place in Craigavon, probably early in 2010.
"Our good faith in not forcing a by-election in Ballymoney has been shamelessly exploited", said Jim Allister.
"Our deal with Jim was that we would not oppose the co-option and we did not. However if his party's nominee was unable, on two occasions, to gain a seconder within the council he can hardly blame the DUP - he should be asking why Mr Calvert was unable to gain that support", retorted the DUP.
The breaking of the deal will, of course, add greatly to the ill-feeling between the TUV and the DUP, and will increase the probability that the TUV will stand against the DUP in key constituencies in the Westminster elections in 2010. The Craigavon by-election will provide an interesting snap-shot of the relative strengths of the two parties (and indeed, the others too). Party strategists will pore over the results to see if the TUV continues to pose a threat to the DUP, and if the rivalry between the two parties can be exploited successfully by other parties.
The vacancy is in the Lurgan electoral area of Craigavon district council. In the most recent election (2005) the area was 84.5% unionist, so there is little hope of a nationalist victory, even with a three-way split amongst the unionists. In 2005 the DUP and the UUP were neck-and-neck – the UUP got 40.2% of the votes, and the DUP 39.4%. But then came the TUV, and some of the DUP's vote has undoubtedly been lost (along with, of course, its elected councillor, Mark Russell).
In the few previous occasions when the two parties have competed – the (in)famous Dromore by-election in February 2008, and the European Parliament elections in June 2009, the TUV has taken around 40% of the combined TUV-DUP vote.
In the case of Lurgan, if the TUV continue to attract a similar proportion of disgruntled ex-DUP voters they could take around 23% of the vote – 16% directly from the DUP, in addition to the 6.4% that Calvert received, standing then as an independent. But since nationalist turnout will be low, as there is no possibility of a nationalist win, the real out-turn in a by-election would be slightly different. In the absence of many nationalist voters the TUV could attract up to 25% of the votes polled – very close to the proportion that the DUP might poll.
The result of the by-election will, in all likelihood, be like two bald men fighting over a comb (as so many of the DUP-TUV spats seem to be) – the UUP will happily watch its two extreme-unionist competitors tearing each other to pieces, and will quietly pick up the seat – its 40% of the vote in 2005 will not be affected by the squabbling to its right, and it will crow that its victory is a vindication of its UCUNF link-up with the Tories, even though this will play little part in its victory.
The victory of the UUP will give it added momentum in the Upper Bann constituency in the run-up to the Westminster elections (Craigavon forms a large part of the Upper Bann constituency). This seat (Trimble's old seat) is one that they would dearly like to win back, and with the help of the TUV they may well get their wish.
Expect a by-election result somewhere in the region of: UUP 45% (to take the seat), DUP 26%, TUV 25%, SDLP/SF 4%. Unless the two extreme-unionist parties patch up their differences, this may also seriously affect* the outcome in the Westminster election in Upper Bann.
[* = altered text (thanks Bangordub)]