Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has finally won a by-election at the seventh time of asking in a badly needed victory that has relieved pressure on his leadership position.
In the early hours of yesterday morning, party candidate Bobby Aylward took back the seat he lost in 2011, making the Carlow-Kilkenny win Fianna Fáil’s first by-election win in nearly two decades.
Mr Aylward, who had been firm favourite due to the constituency’s traditional Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael split and his family’s electoral standing dating back to the 1970s, topped the poll at the first count with 27.8% of first-preference votes.
Unofficial pre-count tallies had led to concerns that he would not have enough of a base to fight off a transfer-fuelled challenge by other candidates. However, his win was never in any real danger due to a strong 7.2% first-count lead he held over his nearest rival, Fine Gael councillor David Fitzgerald.
The seat was officially won just after 2am on Sunday at the ninth count, with Mr Aylward holding a 4,897-vote lead (26,529 to 21,632) over the Government candidate compared to the 4,828 gap after first preferences.
Fianna Fáil’s win reduces Fine Gael’s Dáil numbers to 68 from a high of 76 in 2011.
While Mr Aylward was far from the 33,418 quota, in part due to almost 10,000 non-transferable votes after third-placed Sinn Féin candidate Kathleen Funchion lost out, the difference was enough to comfortably take him back into Leinster House.
Hours before Mr Aylward was hoisted onto the shoulders of his celebrating supporters, Mr Martin was surrounded by well-wishers as he arrived at the count centre safe in the knowledge a win that could herald that a sea change in his leadership strength had occurred.
“We’re on a journey of recovery. This is not about any individual, it’s important for the general momentum of the party,” Mr Martin said.
Questioned over whether he felt under extra pressure to win the Carlow-Kilkenny seat given recent rumblings of discontent among the parliamentary party, he said: “Absolutely not. No one questioned leadership on the doorsteps; they were talking about the issues, the fears of being left behind by a two-tier economy, jobs not coming that should.”
He said the success was not a “litmus test” for the party, or a “blip”, but rather was a by-election that “illustrates Fianna Fáil has the capacity to obtain a significant vote” at the next general election.
Mr Aylward said Mr Martin would “be the leader of the party win, lose, or draw”, as the contest was “not about Micheál Martin’s personally” but about “me winning this election and Fianna Fáil winning this election”.
At his acceptance speech, Mr Aylward said he had to “think long and hard” about “putting my name on the ballot again” having lost the seat in 2011 — he had taken over from his brother Liam in 2007, who had held the position since the 1970s.
Fine Gael, which had thrown significant resources behind Mr Fitzgerald, was unable to overturn Mr Aylward’s lead despite holding firm in second place and seeing off the challenge of Ms Funchion and Patrick McKee, who left Fianna Fáil for Renua.
The seat was made available after former environment minister Phil Hogan’s move to become EU agriculture commissioner last summer.
Mr Aylward’s win, and the notable showings by Ms Funchion and Mr McKee, will make the Carlow-Kilkenny general election race a tight contest, with the seats currently held by Fianna Fáil colleague John McGuinness, Fine Gael duo John Paul Phelan and Pat Deering, and Labour’s Ann Phelan.
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