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Europe

Leading contender concedes as ex-minister looks set for presidency

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-10-29

Former culture minister and Labour member Michael Higgins (pictured) seemed on track on Friday for a victory in Ireland's presidential vote, prompting former frontrunner Sean Gallagher to concede defeat. Official results are expected on Saturday.

REUTERS - A former culture minister and part-time poet was on course to be elected Ireland's president on Friday, beating an ex-IRA commander and a reality TV star, informal tallies showed as one of his rivals conceded defeat.

Michael D. Higgins, 70, a champion of Palestinian rights and a member of junior coalition party Labour, was ahead in most voting tallies across the country, state broadcaster RTE said.

"It's very clear that we will have a President Michael D. Higgins," said David Norris, a gay-rights campaigner who said he expected to come third or fourth.

Results from the first count were expected to come around 1800-1900 GMT and an official result will likely only come on Saturday due to a complicated electoral system and a manual system of counting votes.

Weeks of mud-slinging between the seven candidates vying for the largely ceremonial role have distracted Ireland from its financial crisis.

But they also raised serious questions about the role in Irish politics of Sinn Fein, once the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and about the depth of support for the centre-right Fine Gael party, which swept to power in February.

Former IRA commander Martin McGuinness was expected to take third place with around 15 percent of the vote, said Eoin O'Malley, a politics lecturer at Dublin City University, in line with the last opinion polls and an improvement on the 10 percent of votes it secured in February's election.

"If McGuinness gets 15 percent I would say the party will be privately disappointed. But his campaign didn't catch fire and he didn't deal terribly well with the attacks on his past," said O'Malley.

McGuiness splits opinion

McGuinness, once a leading figure in the IRA's fight against British rule in Northern Ireland, shook up an initially dull race, splitting opinion and prompting some government ministers to paint him as a villain.

Sinn Fein has always campaigned for a united Ireland and is trying to move into the political mainstream in the Republic of Ireland, where its members were banned from speaking on the media until 1993.

Buoyed by public anger over an economic crisis that led to an EU/IMF bailout of Ireland late last year, Sinn Fein tripled its score to a record 14 of parliament's 166 seats in February.

Tallies indicated the party of Prime Minister Enda Kenny would struggle to come fourth in the presidential poll with a fraction of the 36 percent of the vote the party secured in February.

Irish presidential elections are contested more on personality than policy or party and the Fine Gael candidate, Gay Mitchell, consistently failed to shine.

"It's not a judgment on them (Fine Gael), it's the candidate. They put the wrong man up. He wasn't their first choice and it backfired," said Theresa Bannon, a 34-year-old nurse.

Grubby campaign

Front-runner Higgins' Labour party also looked set to win a 38th parliamentary seat in a by-election in Dublin, reinforcing the government's already large parliamentary majority.

The results indicated independent candidate Sean Gallagher, a businessman who shot to fame through reality television, had failed to recover from a scandal that broke after the final opinion poll gave him a 15 point lead.

Disclosures over his ties to Fianna Fail, the party blamed for Ireland's economic collapse, at the end of a grubby campaign prompted bookmakers to make Higgins the favourite.

"It's over," said O'Malley. "Gallagher's vote has more or less collapsed in those areas where he had to be polling really strong."

Results from referendums on whether to allow the government to cut the pay of judges and to boost the power of parliamentary committees will also be known on Saturday.
 

Date created : 2011-10-28

  • IRELAND

    Voters head to polls in presidential election

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