No love lost in Valentine poll

UNIONIST rivals Jeffrey Donaldson and Jim Allister shared a handshake in Dromore yesterday – but there will no Valentine's Day unionist love-in today when the Banbridge District Council by-election result is announced.

Win, lose or draw the DUP and Traditional Unionist Voice are expected to squabble over the result: what it does or doesn't say about the unionist mood and whether it indicates unionist disquiet with DUP-Sinn Fein power-sharing.

Regardless of who finally wins the seat – with the UUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance and the Greens also in the running – the main interest revolves around the battle for the hardline unionist vote between the DUP's Paul Stewart and TUV candidate Keith Harbinson.

Last night DUP insiders were concerned about a low turnout in a district electoral area of 9,500 voters. They claimed that people on the doorsteps were content enough and so were not motivated to come out to vote – preparing the way for a close call.

The TUV camp was reserved, with talk that 15 per cent of the poll would be good for them as a base to work from. However, others suggested they could take 20-25 per cent on a low turnout.

DUP candidate Paul Stewart insisted: "Every candidate is in this to win, whether you are the DUP, the Greens or the TUV. I am not here to argue over figures; if they (TUV) want too, fair enough."

DUP canvassers added that if the TUV claim their tally today (in a safe unionist area) can be replicated across the country then Mr Allister should announce he is running again for the European parliament – if he is so confident.

However Mr Allister, who was canvassing all day in Dromore, said that whatever the result it should be remembered that the TUV "are starting from nothing".

Unless the poll was disastrous there would be positives to take from Dromore and build on and he was hopeful, given the reaction received in the area.

"Any encouraging signs we get will provide a good foundation for us because we are at such an early stage," he said.

"This Dromore seat provides such a good cross-mix of unionism: there's rural and urban; a solid mix of class – if you talk in those terms – and it's been very much a DUP heartland.

"So if we can make in-roads here we will feel we can make them anywhere."

Polling started very slowly yesterday, with estimates that turnout was barely 10 per cent around lunchtime and struggling to hit 30 per cent by the end of the day.

Paul Stewart was joined on the canvass by a group of student supporters from Queen's Democratic Unionist Association, but he stressed that most of his canvassers were locals. The TUV, he claimed, had called in people from all over the country.

"The DUP are on the ground in Dromore and living here," he added.

n The result in the Dromore by-election is expected early mid-afternoon and you can read about it first on the News Letter website today.