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Our Focus programme brings you exclusive reports from around the world. From Monday to Friday at 7.45 am Paris time.

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Latest update : 2011-10-28

Voters go to polls to elect new president

Irish voters are heading to the polls to elect a new head of state. The candidates are a mixed bunch, including an openly gay senator and a former commander of the IRA. Our correspondent Hervé Amoric went out on the campaign trial.

Irish voters go to the polls on Thursday October 27th to elect their new head of state. The background to this presidential campaign is one of economic crisis. Ireland is struggling to come out of three years of recession. 

The last opinion polls put businessman Sean Gallagher in the lead but his standing was dented by a disastrous performance in the final television debate, on Monday night. 

Gallagher has surfed the wave of the economic crisis better than any other candidate. During the campaign, he’s engaged with the public on a key issue: job creation. With 14% of the active population unemployed, many young people have emigrated to Australia or Canada. 

Throughout the campaign, Sean Gallagher talked about leading trade missions abroad, looking for foreign investment and promoting job creation. This is what all presidents have said for decades, but people wanted to believe Gallagher’s positive message.

However, Sean Gallagher’s role as a fundraiser for the former party of government Fianna Fail was exposed in the last television debate, three days before the vote. The candidate appeared to dodge questions on the issue. Fianna Fail presided over the economic downfall of Ireland and was thrown out of office with a crushing defeat in the general election, last February.

This controversy in the last days of the campaign is bound to have an impact on the vote. The election is now expected to be a tighter race between Sean Gallagher and Labour’s Michael D Higgins. At the bookies, Mr Higgins, a veteran politician supported by the coalition government, is the odds favourite. 

Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander turned peacemaker in Northern Ireland could be the kingmaker. If McGuinness comes third in the election, as the opinion polls suggested, his vote transfers will decide who becomes president.

The IRA (Irish Republican Army) renounced violence in 2005 - and today, Martin McGuinness is a charismatic politician, respected in London and Washington. But many voters in the Republic of Ireland are not ready to elect him president.

Why did Martin McGuinness decide to leave his post as a Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland to stand in this election? "Because I want to stand with the ordinary people of Ireland at a time of great economic stress, as a beacon of hope for the future", he told France 24.

For the first time in an Irish presidential election, one of the candidates is an openly gay senator. David Norris, a Joycean scholar, is a very colourful character. Our team followed David Norris as he canvassed in the inner city. It was hard to find anyone who disliked him. People stopped to shake his hand and engaged with him. As a parliamentarian, Norris has championed the civil rights of the Irish people. He helped bring forward the recent legislation on civil partnership. David Norris is the embodiment of a liberal and inclusive Ireland. 

This country’s psyche has changed a lot in the last 20 years. The Catholic Church has lost a lot of its influence with major scandals of sexual abuse by the clergy. In urban areas in particular, Ireland seems to be ready for an openly gay president. But in more rural and conservative areas where people voted "No" to the referendums on Divorce or Abortion, Norris "will have more difficulty to gather votes", according to Dublin City University professor Michael Cronin.

Going into this election, David Norris was in fourth position in the opinion polls, with very little chance of being elected. But the fact that he’s standing in this election is already proof of the social change Ireland has gone through, in the last decades.

The record audience of the last TV debates between the seven candidates would indicate that this campaign has aroused passions much more than previous presidential races. In a way, this campaign may be a compensation for the fact that Ireland has lost its economic sovereignty with the EU and IMF financial bail out, last year. People are aware that decisions are now being taken in Brussels and New York rather than in Dublin. The drastic austerity programme imposed by the Irish government last year was requested by Europe and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Irish voters may be compensating for that loss of sovereignty by investing their interest in the presidential race. If the Irish voters can’t chose their economic policy, they can at least choose the man or woman who will be a symbol for the nation. The results are not due before Friday October 28th, in the evening.

By Hervé AMORIC

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