Early signs point to Sinn Fein by-election victory
The beleaguered Fianna Fail Party could be set for a damaging by-election defeat with early predictions pointing to a Sinn Fein victory.
Unofficial tallies in the fight for the Donegal South West seat previously held by Fianna Fail suggest its vote might have dropped dramatically.
Official figures are not yet available, but tallies of the votes from party workers put Sinn Fein's Pearse Doherty well ahead.
Counting started at 9am and of the boxes opened so far, Sinn Fein has taken an estimated 37pc of support, Fianna Fail 17pc, Labour 12pc, Fine Gael 23pc and 11pc for the sole independent candidate.
If the official results confirm the trend, Sinn Fein, which opposes the Government's austerity measures, will have weakened the Fianna Fail/Green Party coalition's slender hold on power.
If Mr Doherty can secure victory, it will erode the Government's narrow two-seat majority.
This comes as backbenchers and independents are threatening to vote against the Government's tough economic measures aimed at salvaging the state's crippled economy.
Donegal South West is a rural area where people believe they largely missed out on many of the benefits of the Celtic Tiger era. Communities have been hit recently by high unemployment and emigration.
Voters went to the polls yesterday, just 24 hours after Taoiseach Brian Cowen unveiled his four-year plan for national recovery, which mapped out €3bn in social welfare cuts, a rise in tax and the axing of 25,000 public sector jobs.
Meanwhile, European officials and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are in talks with the Government over an additional €85bn rescue package to bail out the economy.
The stage seemed set for a defeat for Fianna Fail, with an opinion poll pointing to Sinn Fein gathering 40pc.
But with Donegal one of Fianna Fail's heartlands, observers were reluctant to rule out a win against the odds.
The seat became vacant 18 months ago when Fianna Fail's Pat "The Cope" Gallagher was elected an MEP.
Mr Doherty launched a successful legal challenge to force the Government to hold the delayed by-election and was favourite to seize the seat.
As the gathering of unofficial tallies continued today, the figures continued to point towards Sinn Fein hitting close to 40pc of first-preference votes.
The Fianna Fail candidate is Brian O Domhnaill and while regarded as a good prospect for the party under normal circumstances, he has been battling against the climate of anger against the Government.
Anecdotal evidence yesterday suggested some party supporters may simply have stayed at home and refused to cast a vote in protest at the economic chaos gripping the country.
Fine Gael is represented by Barry O'Neill, while the Labour candidate is Frank McBrearty, who has a high profile given his successful campaign against garda harassment.
Former Sinn Fein member Thomas Pringle is standing as an independent. A further independent candidate, Ann Sweeney, has withdrawn from the contest.
An official result is due this afternoon.