Voters were picking Ireland’s next president yesterday from a crowded field of seven candidates, among them a reality TV star, a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) warlord and the country’s top gay-rights crusader.
About 3.2 million citizens are eligible to vote for a successor to Irish President Mary McAleese, Ireland’s popular head of state for the past 14 years.
The president has no government powers, but is Ireland’s senior ambassador and, under McAleese’s stewardship, has promoted reconciliation with Britain and the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland.
Ballot counting is scheduled to start today, but a winner is unlikely to be declared until tomorrow because of Ireland’s complex election system. It allows voters to rate candidates in order of preference. This means ballots must be counted and recalculated several times, making it difficult to forecast a winner.
All recent opinion polls have favored Sean Gallagher, a 49-year-old entrepreneur who gained fame as a judge of business talent on an Irish reality TV show Dragon’s Den.
The political novice has promised voters that as president he could help get debt-struck, high-unemployment Ireland back to work too, but Gallagher’s bid suffered untold damage when he flubbed the campaign’s final TV debate on Monday and fueled the impression that he had been a “bagman” — a collector of undisclosed and potentially corrupt donations — for Ireland’s most ethically challenged party, Fianna Fail.
The biggest beneficiary of Gallagher’s 11th-hour stumble could be Michael Higgins, an elvish 70-year-old lawmaker and former cabinet minister, renowned as a champion of arts, literature and left-wing human rights causes.
All opinion polls taken before Monday’s debate rated Gallagher first and Higgins second. No polls have been taken since Gallagher’s misstep.
Running third was Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, whose campaign has been dominated by unrelenting media questioning of his role in orchestrating IRA violence.
McGuinness says he quit the IRA in 1974 to become a fulltime peacemaker. That claim is at odds with histories of the Northern Ireland conflict identifying the 61-year-old as a senior IRA figure until the outlawed group itself went out of business in 2005.
The campaign’s initial front-runner, Senator David Norris, a former Trinity College professor and authority on the writings of James Joyce, has languished in fourth place in most recent polls, with support largely confined to Dublin.
Renowned for his wit and theatrical charm, Norris rose to prominence by leading a decade-long legal fight that forced Ireland to decriminalize homosexuality in 1993.
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