Douglas Bain, the Chief Electoral Officer today declared the return of the new councillors to fill the vacancies that arose from the resignation of Nigel Dodds MLA OBE and Diane Dodds MEP.
Sarah Lydia Patterson has been returned in the Castle District Electoral Area whilst Brian Lambert Kingston has been returned in the Court District Electoral Area.
The councillors were returned under the new law that allows the nominating officer for the relevant party to nominate a person to fill a vacancy in a seat previously held by a member of that party.
And thus ends the long and interesting tradition of the local government by-election in Northern Ireland.
The Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment) Order 2010 sets out detailed rules for the filling of 'casual vacancies' in district councils – the essential part of which, however, is as follows:
As soon as practicable after receiving the notice of the vacancy the Chief Electoral Officer must ask the nominating officer of that registered party to nominate in writing, within 28 days from the date of the Chief Electoral Officer's request, a person ( “P”) to fill the vacancy.
In other words, when a Councillor resigns or dies, his or her party get to nominate a replacement – and this is the party in whose name he/she stood when last elected, so defected seats return to their original owner. There are other rules for independent Councillors, who can give the Chief Electoral Officer a list of substitutes, from whom the replacement is taken (they are ordered according to preference by the Councillor, and offered the seat in that order).
Where a party no longer exists at the time of the casual vacancy arising, an election can take place, but this will be extremely rare. For the most part, local by-elections are now consigned to history, and with them dies one of the small pleasures of the psephologist.