On Saturday 14 November Portadown SDLP councillor Ignatius Fox died. Portadown is an electoral area in Craigavon Borough which Councillor Fox has represented since 1985.
His death brings to two the number of vacancies on Craigavon Borough Council – the other being the seat vacated by the TUV's Mark Russell, and that was (and remains) the subject of a squabble between the unionist parties.
Fox's seat is in an electoral area that is 67.6% unionist, and thus in a by-election it would undoubtedly be picked up by a unionist candidate – most likely the DUP who polled 42.5% in 2005. Here though, as everywhere, the looming threat of the TUV could cause some sleepless nights for the DUP. But the future threat posed by the TUV was already present in 2005, when a number of independent unionists, including David Jones who was elected, polled over 10% of the vote in Portadown. The TUV could count on this 10% as a base upon which to build – though whether it could overcome the DUP's commanding lead in the area is unlikely.
The UUP used to be the largest unionist party in the district, losing their lead to the DUP only in 2001. They may still harbour ambitions to regain that lead, but they are unlikely to be confident enough to test the waters so close to a Westminster election, as a set-back could have a significant psychological impact.
It is customary, but not universal, that deaths of sitting councillors are filled through co-option. While Councillor Fox was well regarded, it would require some restraint by the unionist parties, especially the DUP, to allow such a co-option in a majority unionist district. The ill feeling created by the non-co-option of David Calvert in Lurgan, on the eastern side of the borough, may have one of two effects. Either the other unionist parties will not provoke an election for fear that the DUP will win it, or they will insist on an election in the faint hope that they could embarrass the DUP yet again. Given the fairly commanding DUP lead in the district in 2005 it is likely to be the first option.
Only two outcomes are likely, therefore. An SDLP co-option, or an opportunist by-election forced by the DUP.