Higgins wins Irish vote

2011-10-30 15:59

Dublin - Michael D Higgins, a veteran left-wing politician, poet and human rights activist, was declared the winner of Saturday's presidential election in Ireland with nearly 57% of votes, and pledged to lift the spirits of a struggling nation.

Higgins said he wanted to help revive the public's faith in politicians at a time when Ireland faces record debts, a property market collapse, 15% unemployment and a fourth straight year of severe spending cuts.

The diminutive Higgins, 70, beamed with pride as he received congratulations inside Dublin Castle from government leaders and most rival candidates. He announced he would resign immediately as president and member of the Labour Party, the junior member of Ireland's coalition government, because his new role as ceremonial head of state meant he must be "a president for all the people."

Higgins received more than one million votes of the nearly 1.8 million cast in Thursday's election. Referring to the 43% of registered voters who didn't cast a ballot, he said, "I want to be a president, too, for those who didn't vote, whose trust in public institutions I will encourage and work to recover. ... I dedicate my abilities to the service and welfare of the people of Ireland."

Once Higgins is inaugurated as president on November 11, he becomes Ireland's senior ambassador, tasked with building confidence at home and goodwill abroad.

No government power

The Irish president wields no government power beyond the ability to refer potentially unconstitutional legislation to Ireland's Supreme Court. But the presidency enjoys considerable freedom to shape Ireland's rapidly secularising society by bringing different groups together at the Phoenix Park residence and traveling the world expressing a vision of what it should mean to be Irish in the 21st century.

Higgins is a former Galway university lecturer and published poet who has dedicated his four-decade political career to championing Irish culture and left-wing human rights causes worldwide. He also is one of Ireland's most instantly recognised politicians, in part, because of his 1.63m and much-imitated high voice. Local satirists sometimes depict him as an elf, hobbit or leprechaun talking in riddles and verse.

Higgins served as arts minister in the mid-1990s, during which he launched tax breaks for film production in Ireland and a new TV channel to promote programming in Gaelic, Ireland's native but little-spoken language. Higgins, who has roots in the rural western counties of Clare and Galway, is fluent.

Saturday's result capped a two-day count of ballots to determine who would succeed Mary McAleese, Ireland's popular president since 1997. She said Higgins' win opens "an exciting chapter for ... our global Irish family."

Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern history at University College Dublin, said it was striking that Ireland had elected a politician who for decades had been "a thorn in the side of the establishment" - and now was the official face of Ireland. He said Higgins' triumph reflected voter anger at right-wing politicians who had brought Ireland to the brink of bankruptcy.

"The idea that the Irish have elected a poet with a social conscience, with a track record in human rights, that's a very positive development," Ferriter said.

Higgins' victory was assured after partial results on Friday gave him an unassailable lead versus six other candidates, all of whom conceded defeat long before the final result. Most joined Higgins on stage to praise him, including entrepreneur and reality TV judge Sean Gallagher, who came in second, and former Irish Republican Army commander Martin McGuinness, who came in third.

"Michael D will be a very, very fine president. He's a man of great intellectual capacity and a man with a huge heart," said McGuinness, deputy leader of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party.

- SAPA
Read more on:    ireland
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