x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Poet Higgins becomes president of Ireland

Former arts minister was runaway favourite after disastrous performance by rival on televised debate.

Michael Higgins, centre, campaigning with supporters in Dublin's Henry Street earlier this month.
Michael Higgins, centre, campaigning with supporters in Dublin's Henry Street earlier this month.

DUBLIN // Centre-left candidate Michael Higgins triumphed in Ireland's presidential election yesterday after a last-minute collapse in support for his leading rival, reality TV star Sean Gallagher.

A disastrous performance by Mr Gallagher in a final pre-election television debate on Monday enabled Mr Higgins to take almost 57 per cent of the final vote, well ahead of his rival.

On the eve of the debate, opinion polls showed Mr Gallagher was runaway favourite with about 40 per cent of the vote, compared with 25 per cent for Mr Higgins.

Born into poor and difficult circumstances in the rural west, Mr Higgins, 70, was fostered to childless relatives at the age of five and worked as a clerk for several years before becoming the first member of his family to attend university.

He went on to study then lecture in sociology at University College Galway, while establishing himself as a poet and intellectual.

Despite having served as a Labour party parliamentarian for most of the past four decades, Mr Higgins stayed aloof from run-of-the-mill Irish politics.

Best known for his term as arts minister, he championed Ireland's vibrant cultural sector to a largely indifferent political establishment.

He also lent his florid eloquence to overseas campaigns, supporting human rights in Central America, Africa and the Middle East.

In practice, the narrow constitutional powers of Ireland's presidency are seldom invoked, leaving the incumbent with a mainly ceremonial role.

Mr Higgins's triumph reaffirmed the lessons of Ireland's last two presidencies - Mary Robinson, later a UN human rights chief, and constitutional lawyer Mary McAleese - that most Irish people want a head of state whom they can trust to cut an educated, dignified and thoughtful figure at home and abroad.

In contrast to Mr Higgins's long-established role in public life, Mr Gallagher, 49, had never held public office and relied on his profile as a panel member on the Irish version of Dragon's Den, a reality show in which would-be entrepreneurs pitch for small investments from successful business people.

He sought to capitalise on widespread disgust with the established parties caused by Ireland's economic collapse and positioned himself as an independent, non-political candidate and a successful entrepreneur.

Going into the final debate, he had largely succeeded in shrugging off media revelations that, far from being an outsider, he had been involved with the Fianna Fail party, which was hounded from office last February after dragging Ireland into a profound economic and political crisis.

He had also evaded questions on alleged financial improprieties and his business record.

But in the course of the television debate, watched by an estimated 780,000 people - a quarter of the electorate - on state broadcaster RTE's Frontline programme, the Sinn Fein candidate, Martin McGuinness, said that Mr Gallagher had not only attended a secretive Fianna Fail fundraiser in 2008, but had also, contrary to his previous denials, actively solicited donations and collected at least one cheque in person.

Mr Gallagher at first sought to deny the allegations, then appeared to change his story.

Confronted by the show's presenter, Pat Kenny, with a tweet claiming that Mr McGuinness's anonymous informant was about to go public, a shaken Mr Gallagher conceded that there may have been "an envelope".

"Brown envelopes" have become strongly associated with the "bagmen", who for years collected secret donations and bribes for leading politicians.

When Mr Gallagher himself introduced the word "envelope" to the debate, there were gasps and jeers from the audience.

In that moment, his election campaign died.

But Mr Gallagher was not the only victim of an exceptionally vicious campaign.

Mr McGuinness, who finished a distant third, might have done even better were it not for repeated questioning about his role as the head of the IRA during the bloody Northern Ireland Troubles.

Gay Mitchell, an old-school professional politician, finished fourth despite being the official candidate for the main ruling party, Fine Gael.

David Norris, a gay activist and authority on the writings of James Joyce, slumped from first to fifth after the leaking of letters he had written to the Israeli authorities in 1997.

They pleaded for clemency for his former partner, an Israeli leftist who had been convicted of having an affair with an under-age Palestinian.

The campaign of Dana Rosemary Scallan, who won the Eurovision song contest for Ireland in 1970, was overshadowed by eccentric family disputes and her own claims that someone tried to assassinate her by slashing one of her car tyres.

Police insisted the tyre ruptured on a motorway because it was not properly inflated.

She came sixth out of the seven candidates.

 

eoloughin@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Reuters