So the Enniskillen by election is almost upon us. I always avoid making predictions but I thought we might look at what various possible outcomes might tell us.I would not pretend to be a competent analyst of nationalism but the likely outcomes here seem the more straight forward. Whether or not SF capture the seat, I suspect they will get a substantial majority of the nationalist / republican vote. The SDLP seem to be running a pretty low key campaign and their support base in Fermanagh is now so small that a good showing for them is pretty unlikely. A good result for the SDLP would be a nasty shock for SF but I personally doubt we will see it.
Moving on to rejectionist Republicanism: I doubt a poor result for Karen McHugh could be interpreted as meaning poor support for anti agreement Republicans. I have frequently argued that Fermanagh contains much of the anti agreement Republican vote but that has seemed to be more concentrated in Erne East and Erne West rather than the Enniskillen / Tempo / Lisbellaw area. More importantly, although Ms. McHugh has made passing reference to her father being on the rejectionist wing of republicanism, she seems to have studiously avoided invoking such issues in her electoral pitch. As such whilst a good result for Ms. McHugh (which I do not expect) might well indicate significant support for anti agreement republicanism the converse is by no means necessarily correct and a poor showing by Ms. McHugh would, I suggest, tell us little.
Turning to Alliance: Although I have recently advocated them standing beyond the Pale, I do not expect a good showing for Dr. Kamble. I might be really nasty and suggest that if the good doctor gets more votes than he has letters after his name he would have reason to be satisfied.
Now on to the subject I am meant to know a little (very little) about: the unionists.
I said some time ago that the DUP were being clever by sending Mrs. Foster into battle and indeed as some will remember I likened her to the battleship HMS Warspite (again may I stress that that was meant as a compliment). Foster should be able (like our battleship) to annihilate the UUP challenge from Basil Johnston with little effort. She is by far the most prominent unionist in Co. Fermanagh and she topped the poll at the last election.
Of course such is the nature of Northern Ireland politics that perversely she could gain as much for the DUP by losing as by winning. If she gets much the biggest unionist vote but still loses, the DUP can (and indeed should) spin this as an idiotic unnecessary by election brought on by the UUP which has resulted in yet another republican victory west of the Bann. It would strengthen Peter Robinsons arguments in favour of unionist unity and should end any lingering thoughts the UUP may have of trying to stand a candidate in F/ST at the next Westminster election.
Clearly a DUP win would also gain all of those and would provide positive momentum. However, I almost feel that the shock of the seat falling to nationalism despite a large DUP majority within the unionist community would be a bigger blow to the UUP than simply a DUP victory.
Bad outcomes for the DUP would be to loose the seat and see a large drop in their percentage of the unionist vote or indeed a drop in the total unionist percentage of the vote. Either would imply that voters are deserting the DUP: for either no one (possibly due to the absence of the TUV), or for the UUP.
A good UUP showing would be an interesting result but would also be a difficult one to interpret. As at Dromore it would be claimed by the UUP as proof that they are on the way back. Unlike at Dromore of course the TUV are not standing: As such, whatever the UUP try to claim, it would be difficult to calculate to what extent any UUP gain could be attributed to people trying to damage the DUP rather than actually wanting to return to the UUP fold. Clearly a UUP victory would be a massive success for them: the more so because it would have been won against Arlene Foster, as mentioned above, Fermanaghs most prominent unionist and also someone who seems at times to have become something of a hate figure for Fermanagh UUP members.
As I suggested previously one must be very wary when analysing one council election. However, Dromore seems to have been the final nail in Dr. Paisleys leadership coffin. As such despite this being a minor council by election it may well create significant ripples.
I will finish by suggesting that the critical things to look for are a significant drop in the SF vote (unlikely) and on the unionist side a drop in the total unionist or individual DUP vote (bad news for the DUP). Clearly if the DUPs vote holds up well they will have considerable cause for celebration. We will wait and see if Mrs. Foster really is as lethally effective for the DUPs cause as HMS Warspite was for Britains. The disaster for her would be to be her partys HMS Prince of Wales.