Unionists fear a big sympathy vote will send Michelle Gildernew back to Westminster with a comfortable majority even if they succeed in having her election in Fermanagh South Tyrone declared invalid.
A three-day hearing before an Election Court in Dungannon this week will decide whether the mother-of-three will have to fight a by-election to finally retain her seat.
Gildernew, 41, was declared the winner on the third recount in May by just four votes, much to the anger of Unionists who argued that at least six votes shouldn’t have gone to her.
Defeated Unionist unity candidate Rodney Connor claims to have two witnesses who saw six votes counted which should have been rejected. But a pre-court hearing last week heard that the disputed votes were not available to the court.
Senior judges expressed astonishment that 47,000 accepted votes were not trawled through to identify the disputed papers.
The Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said that not being able to examine the six contested ballot papers created “enormous difficulty” for the Election Court.
The Electoral Office has refused to make any comment about the poll count since the election result was declared and wouldn’t answer media questions about polling station returns and spoiled votes.
The overturning of a General Election result is a rare event but Unionists argue that six questionable votes made the difference between a victory for Michelle Gildernew or her losing the seat.
But if a by-election is called the SDLP is likely to face pressure to stand aside rather than split the nationalist vote.
And Unionists fear that a big sympathy turn-out for Mrs Gildernew could lead to her comfortably holding the seat.