By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Political Reporter
Fianna Fáil may not be far enough ahead on first preference votes to see off a transfer-based challenge from other parties in the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election.
The trend - which could result in the party losing its seventh by-election in the lifetime of the current Dáil, placing further pressure on leader Micheal Martin - has been strongly suggested by a number of parties after unofficial early tallies.
Based on 72% of boxes opened in the two-county constituency, Fianna Fáil's Bobby Aylward is on 25%, with a 4% lead on Fine Gael's David Fitzgerald.
Sinn Féin's Kathleen Funchion is on 17%, Renua's Patrick McKee on 10%, and Labour's Willie Quinn on 7.5%.
The figures are based on all boxes in Carlow some in north, east and west Kilkenny, and crucially Mr Aylward's backyard of south Kilkenny.
However, while this breakdown suggests the Fianna Fáil candidate could be on course to reclaim the seat he lost in 2011, and which his family had held since the 1970s, there is concern among Fianna Fáil he may not have enough of a lead to fight off a transfer-based challenge.
It is understood Sinn Féin has conducted a transfer policy in Kilkenny city that is unusually seeing its voters give second preferences to Fine Gael candidate Mr Fitzgerald or no one at all.
The unexpected move is believed to be designed to trip up Fianna Fáil and Renua candidate Mr McKee, both of whom are more likely competitors for soft votes Sinn Féin has been hopeful of picking up.
Added to the fact Renua's transfers are showing no clear pattern as to who is benefiting, the development is likely to put Fianna Fáil under severe pressure as the current unofficial lead may not be wide enough without outside help.
Fianna Fáil insiders have privately admitted concerns over the current projections, which were added to just after 1pm when it emerged Mr Aylward is not dominating his own south Kilkenny backyard by as large a margin as hoped.
The issue - which is seeing Sinn Féin's Kathleen Funchion push him close in the area - is mainly due to the working class urban Ferrybank district in the mainly rural location.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner at the Carlow Kilkenny count, local Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness said it was early days and that early tallies "are only accurate within a certain margin".
However, the situation is likely to place yet more pressure on Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin, who has already presided over six failed by-election bids during the lifetime of the current Dáil and had earmarked today's race in the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael dominated constituency as winnable.
Meanwhile, foreign affairs minister and Fine Gael's director of elections Charlie Flanagan said he expects transfers "is what's going to decide it".
"If the margin is tight, and by tight I mean 3-4%, it can be overcome by either the Fine Gael candidate or the Sinn Féin candidate. We were always of the view in Fine Gael that Aylward would top the [first preferences] poll, but it's the margin he will be ahead after the first count," he said.
An official first count is not expected until mid-afternoon.