Elections 2019: Former GAA President Sean Kelly tops Ireland South ballot and Wallace comes third in shock
OUTGOING Fine Gael MEP and former GAA President Sean Kelly comfortably topped the European Parliament ballot in Ireland South but was just 1,400 votes short of being elected on the first count.
The marathon first count for the sprawling 12 county constituency indicated that former Fianna Fáil Junior Minister and veteran Cork TD Billy Kelleher is also poised to take a Brussels seat with 84,083 votes.
The big surprise of the election was the strong performance of Wexford TD Mick Wallace who secured a whopping 81,741 votes and came third in the ballot.
He is now almost certain to be elected.
Outgoing MEP Liadh Ni Riada of Sinn Fein is also well placed to be re-elected with 79,072.
A desperate battle is underway between five candidates for the final three seats.
Outgoing Fine Gael MEP Deirdre Clune, Independent TD Mick Wallace, Senator Grace O'Sullivan of the Green Party (75,946) and Councillor Malcolm Byrne of Fianna Fáil now all face a marathon battle for transfers.
Junior Minister Andrew Doyle (Fine Gael) polled 38,738 votes and is unlikely to be in contention for a seat.
Further, it remains unclear whether his transfers will be enough to help his colleague Deirdre Clune MEP (64,605) hold her seat.
Labour's Sheila Nunan polled 22,075 and is not expected to be in contention.
Fianna Fáil's two candidates and Independent TD Mick Wallace performed much better than Friday's exit poll indicated - with geographic factors in the sprawling constituency now likely to play a key role in determining where the fifth and final seat goes.
Councillor Byrne surprised many with the strength of his vote, delivering an impressive 69,166 first preference ballots - just 15,000 behind his high profile running mate.
It now appears likely that the fifth and final seat may not be finalised until the early hours of Thursday morning.
Ireland South - which is comprised of a 1.4 million strong electorate - had a total poll of almost 750,000 votes.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin said he was "hopeful" that late count transfers could see the party's two candidates elected.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, who is Fine Gael's director of elections for Ireland South, insisted he remained "hopeful" that the party could retain its two MEP berths.
"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.
Mr Kelly warned against writing Fine Gael off from retaining their second European Parliament seat in Ireland South.
"Above all you have to realise that transfers will 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 some candidates up quite a lot."
Mr Wallace said he was buoyed by the support he received.
"My passport is in order for Brussels," he joked.
"It is amazing the level of support I got. They are telling me that it is looking good. If I go to Brussels I guarantee you I will remain a thorn in the side of the Government here. I promise you that."
Senator O'Sullivan acknowledged that Green Party support was not as decisive as first indicated by the exit poll - and she said Mick Wallace's level of support had been understated.
However, she warned it would be "a very, very long wait to see which way the transfers break" with pundits saying she was still firmly in the hunt for an MEP seat.
Sitting MEP Deirdre Clune faces an uphill battle to defend the Strasbourg berth she defied the odds to win in 2014 when she overtook Health Minister Simon Harris on the tenth count.
"I have been here before and you absolutely do not know what is going to happen. There is a long way to go and I will try to hang in there," she said.
Count staff at the Nemo Rangers GAA complex in Cork have faced a number of challenges with the first count not confirmed until after 7pm last night after two days of ballot sorting.
These ranged 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.
A further headache for count staff was the almost 40,000 spoiled or disputed ballot papers - a far higher proportion than normal.
Almost 16,000 papers were left blank when put in ballot boxes.
It is the first European Parliament election not contested by former MEP Brian Crowley, who retired on health grounds, since 1994.
The constituency was expanded since 2014 and now encompasses 12 counties.