INDICATIONS are mounting that Fine Gael MEP and former GAA President Sean Kelly will be elected on the first count in Ireland South.
However, it now appears likely that the fifth and final seat in the sprawling 12 county constituency will not be finalised until the early hours of Thursday morning.
A first count is expected at the Cork count centre at the Nemo Rangers GAA complex in Cork around 4pm today.
If elected on the first count, as appears imminent, Mr Kelly’s entire vote will then have to be recounted to determine the breakdown of any surplus ballots he has.
Ireland South – which is comprised of a 1.4 million strong electorate – has proved slightly different to Friday night’s exit poll indications.
Mr Kelly has polled stronger than anticipated – and the battle for the four remaining seats is also expected to prove closer than predicted.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, who is Fine Gael’s director of elections for Ireland South, said he remained “hopeful” that the party could retain its two MEP berths.
“The only evidence we have so far is the exit poll – if the figures are precisely as they are in the exit poll I would give a very good chance to Deirdre Clune MEP of taking a second seat for Fine Gael,” he said.
“My understanding is that Sean Kelly MEP will be on or about the quota.”
“However, there are a number of health warnings about all this because we have not seen a first count yet.”
Mr Kelly warned against writing Fine Gael off from retaining their second European Parliament seat in the Ireland South constituency.
“Above all you have to realise that transfers have a big bearing on it – particularly when you have 23 candidates. There are going to be a whole pile of transfers and if they fall the right way they are going to push up candidates quite a lot.”
Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Independent Mick Wallace and the Greens are battling for the final two berths in the European Parliament election in the sprawling Ireland South constituency.
Sitting MEP Deirdre Clune now faces an uphill battle to defend the Strasbourg berth she defied the odds to win in 2014.
Early indications are that sitting MEPs Sean Kelly and Liadh Ni Riada as well as former Junior Minister Billy Kelleher of Fianna Fáil are poised to take the first three seats.
However, count staff at the Nemo Rangers GAA complex in Cork have faced a number of challenges.
These range from the sheer size of the poll – roughly 750,000 votes in the constituency with an electorate of 1.4 million – to the size of the ballot paper itself which has 23 candidates.
The ballot paper is almost 60cm long.
Special count boxes had to be brought in because the ballot papers were too long for the normal boxes used in general and local elections.
Handling the oversized ballot papers also delayed count staff.
Counting proper only began after 4pm yesterday because sorting and sub-dividing the papers from the 12 counties took longer than anticipated.
A further headache for count staff is the estimated 40,000 spoiled or disputed ballot papers – a far higher proportion than normal.
One count official said the destination of the fifth and final seat may not be determined until Thursday.
The fourth and fifth seats are set to be decided in a tight transfer battle between Fine Gael’s Deirdre Clune, Green Party’s Grace O’Sullivan, Independent Mick Wallace and Fianna Fail’s Malcolm Byrne.
Labour’s Sheila Nunan has polled well but faces a challenge to stay in the hunt for the final two seats and will require transfers to fall very kindly for her.
It is the first European Parliament election not contested by former MEP Brian Crowley, who retired on health grounds, since 1994.
A limited tally of Cork ballots indicated that the Green Party’s Grace O’Sullivan is set to benefit from being “transfer friendly” with other parties – and will benefit further from her Waterford base attracting transfers from candidates in the eastern part of the giant constituency.
“I am hopeful. But there is a long way to go,” Ms O’Sullivan said as she visited the Cork count centre.
Having polled 26,000 votes in the 2014 European Parliament election, the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) graduate is on course to reflect the ‘Green Wave’ that has seen a surge in support for the Green Party.
Mick Wallace, who also visited the Cork complex, admitted he was “absolutely wrecked” from campaigning across the 12 county constituency over the past month.
“I don’t have a clue how it is going to go, to be honest. It is going to be very close. I heard that Fianna Fáil are doing better than the exit poll showed. That would be problematic for me because Malcolm Byrne is obviously a competitor with me for the fifth seat.”
“If he does better, it makes it more difficult for me. But if I’m elected, I’m elected – if I’m not, then I’m not.”
Liadh Ni Riada also visited the count centre with Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald TD.
She said it was difficult to predict the outcome of the ballot given the sheer size of the vote and the total absence of tallies.
Fianna Fail’s Billy Kelleher TD said it had clearly been a good election for the party and leader Micheal Martin.
“I got the sense on the doorsteps that people were very positive to the Fianna Fáil campaign and our party message,” he said.
Mr Kelleher acknowledged that geographic elements of the constituency will prove crucial.
One Fine Gael analyst expressed concern that Ms Clune could suffer from late count eliminations where the candidates are largely from the south east – and may favour each other on geographic grounds.
The constituency was expanded since 2014 and now encompasses 12 counties.
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