By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Irish Examiner Political Reporter
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin looks set to win his first by-election at the seventh time of asking after a late pull away from competitors by Carlow Kilkenny candidate Bobby Aylward.
The result is being predicted after a final unofficial tally based on 97% of first preference votes cast saw the former TD gain a 6.9% lead on his nearest rival, Fine Gael's David Fitzgerald.
At 72% of votes tallied, Aylward was just 4% ahead of Fitzgerald, leading to private concerns among the party that he risked being overtaken on transfers. By the final tally however, his 25%-21% lead had surged to 28-21.1% - giving him a strong safety net against any change at the top of the poll.
However, Fine Gael officials still believe they may receive enough of a boost from transfers to make the final counts of the contest competitive.
The prediction will be a welcome relief to Mr Martin, whose leadership has been dogged with repeated failures to win a by-election and internal party strife bubbling over into public, as the Carlow Kilkenny constituency was considered an eminently winnable seat for Fianna Fáil.
According to the 97% final unofficial tally:
- Fianna Fáil's Aylward is on 28% of first preferences
- Fine Gael's Fitzgerald 21.1%
- Sinn Féin's Kathleen Funchion 16.1%
- Renua's Patrick McKee 9.4%
- Labour's Willie Quinn 6.5%
- Greens' Malcolm Noonan 5.3%
- Independent's Breda Gardner 4.4%
- People before Profit's Adrienne Wallace 3.4%
- Anti-Austerity Alliance's Conor MacLiam 3.2%
- Identity Ireland's Peter O Loughlin 1.3%
- Three other candidates who did not poll above 1%
It is expected that 21% of the transfers as the counts progress will be split between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and 10-15% to Sinn Féin, with a 500 vote internal Fine Gael sample of the 10,500 votes which make up the 21% category suggestion three out of every four could go to the Government party.
However, while Fine Gael believes this keeps them in the race for controversial former environment minister Phil Hogan's former seat, the soldiers of destiny are "quietly confident" they will not be overtaken.
Speaking at the count centre this afternoon, Fianna Fáil director of elections and environment spokesperson Barry Cowen cited a number of instances when candidates were "congratulated with in the morning and commiserated with that night" and that nothing is won until a formal announcement is made.
The first count in the constituency is expected to take place after 5pm this afternoon.