Gay Candidate in Irish Presidential Election Concedes Defeat
Human rights activist and poet Michael D. Higgins looked on course Friday to be elected Ireland’s president after his main rival suffered a last-minute collapse in support, according to senior politicians, electoral officials and an opinion poll.
"Michael D. Higgins looks pretty certain to be elected. ... I’m really delighted that he succeeded," said Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore of the governing Labour Party. Higgins is Labour’s candidate.
And former Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, whose Fianna Fail party was ejected from office by angry voters earlier this year and didn’t run a presidential candidate, said Higgins was guaranteed to win when full results are announced Saturday.
Martin said Higgins "will make an excellent president and ambassador for Ireland." He praised Higgins’ "command of global issues and commitment to human rights."
Ballot-counters estimated that Higgins was leading with around 40 percent of first-preference votes, nearly double his main challenger, businessman and reality TV celebrity Sean Gallagher.
Pressing Gallagher for second place was former Irish Republican Army commander Martin McGuinness, who temporarily stepped down as deputy leader of the Northern Ireland government to make his first foray into southern Irish politics. McGuinness, who wasn’t eligible to vote because he’s a Northern Ireland resident, was expected to resume his government post in Belfast.
Four other candidates to be Ireland’s ceremonial head of state trailed far behind. One of them, Dublin gay rights activist David Norris, conceded defeat and praised Higgins.
"I’m very happy to be an Irishman under the presidency of Michael D. Higgins," said Norris, who lauded his rival as a political maverick and social liberal who would "speak out on behalf of the marginalized."
Higgins, 70, is best known in Ireland as "Michael D," befitting his status as one of the country’s most liked and instantly recognized politicians. He stands just 5 foot 4, his elfin features complemented with a much-parodied high voice infused with his rural County Clare roots.
Higgins, a former University College Galway lecturer in sociology and politics, is credited as an intellectual heavyweight of Irish politics with three published collections of poetry to his credit and a four-decade record of promoting home-grown arts, literature, film and the native Gaelic language. Unlike other English-only candidates and most of the nation, Higgins spoke the native Irish tongue fluently on the campaign trail.
He also has traveled the world defending left-wing human rights cases. He is one of Ireland’s most ardent critics of U.S. foreign policy, particularly in Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan, and of Israel’s policies versus the Palestinians.
His socialism came to the fore on the campaign trail as he condemned the get-rich-quick excesses of Ireland’s lost Celtic Tiger boom economy, arguing its narcissism and greed left the country mired in debt and unemployment.
Analysts say Higgins is too far ahead for Gallagher to catch up as the counting runs into Saturday. Ireland’s complex voting system permits voters to rate candidates in order of preference, which requires several rounds of ballot-counting.
Gallagher, an entrepreneur and the star judge on a business-talent TV competition called "Dragon’s Den," had a 15-point lead in opinion polls versus Higgins until Monday - when his image imploded during the campaign’s last live TV debate.
McGuinness presented evidence that Gallagher had served as a "bagman," a collector of undocumented cash donations, from businessmen to Ireland’s long-dominant Fianna Fail party. Voters threw Fianna Fail out of power in February after it was blamed for leading Ireland to the brink of bankruptcy and an international bailout.
Gallagher, who ran as an independent and downplayed his Fianna Fail background, stumbled as he tried to explain the circumstances of one donation he allegedly collected from a border fuel smuggler. Analysts said that admission linked Gallagher fatally in voters’ minds to Fianna Fail’s poor ethical record.
Higgins’ campaign team seized on their candidate’s own reputation for honesty and integrity as a point of contrast. Full-page newspaper ads on election day claimed that the "D’’ in Higgins’ name stood for democracy and decency. It actually stands for Daniel.
A survey published Friday by Irish pollsters RedC said it telephoned 1,100 citizens Thursday after they had cast their ballots and detected a massive flight from Gallagher in the campaign’s dying days.
About 38 percent said they had decided whom to support only following that TV debate. Some 28 percent said they had switched support in the past week - and 58 percent of those said they had dumped Gallagher.