A veteran left-wing human rights activist and campaigner for the arts declared himself yesterday to be “a little overwhelmed” on becoming Ireland’s President in waiting after a campaign notable for mud-slinging and unprecedented volatility among voters. Michael D Higgins will be inaugurated on Armistice Day, 11 November, the day after Mary McAleese, the serving President, leaves office.
Mr Higgins, a 70-year-old poet and member of the Irish Labour Party, was elected by a handsome margin, although a few days before votes were cast on Thursday, he was trailing a previously unknown candidate.
The irony is that Irish voters, who throughout the campaign were clearly seeking a person of independence because of widespread disillusion with politics, wound up electing a figure from one of the conventional parties.
However, the new president is regarded as a fairly unconventional politician, noticeably to the left in Irish terms. He is something of an iconoclast, has a pronounced independent streak and is by no means a creature of the establishment.
During the long and bruising campaign, he started as favourite in the opinion polls. But he then lost the lead because of a remarkable surge by a dark horse – Sean Gallagher, a television personality on Dragons’ Den – whose emphasis on the entrepreneurial struck a chord in a country of high unemployment.
Even when behind in the polls, Mr Higgins maintained a dignified demeanour. His restraint enhanced his image as a person of presidential potential. His stance – which he sustained despite moments of obvious anxiety – was vindicated when Mr Gallagher’s campaign imploded three days before the vote.
The defining moment came last Monday. During a television debate, Mr Gallagher responded unconvincingly to accusations that he was much more intimately connected than he had admitted to the Fianna Fail party, a toxic political brand.
As a result, his phenomenal rise was followed by an equally phenomenal plunge, many of his supporters deserting him to join the Higgins camp. In the first count – Ireland uses proportional representation in its elections – Mr Higgins had 40 per cent of the vote while Mr Gallagher took 28 per cent.
Mr Higgins said yesterday: “I feel a little overwhelmed. I’m very, very happy. It is something I prepared for, something I thought about for a long while. I hope it will be a presidency that will enable everybody to be part of and proud of.”
The new president has the advantage of being personally popular both with the public and the political classes, where he is regarded as an individualist. While he is viewed as possessing gravitas, he is often satirised for his short stature and high-pitched voice which, together with his commitment to the arts, have brought him the nickname of Michael Twee.
The accusation universally regarded as the killer blow to the Gallagher campaign came from Sinn Fein candidate Martin McGuinness, who caused a stir when he unexpectedly entered the race. His intervention did not materially benefit his own vote, but it earned Sinn Fein the distinction of changing the election result.
Mr McGuinness came third in the poll with 13.7 per cent, which was an advance on Sinn Fein’s 10 per cent in a general election earlier this year. While this is not regarded as a triumph, it is a significant step in the party’s project of building a major political base in the Irish Republic.
Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Fein described it as a milestone election for the party. She added: “There was a time when republicans would have been considered a marginal voice in southern politics, and we have changed that. Now we are part and parcel of the political fabric of this state, the political conversation, and for us it is very significant.”
David McKittrick, The Independent