Michael D Higgins will serve another seven year term as President of Ireland as tallies and early results in Friday’s Presidential election bore out the results of two exit polls which last night indicated he is set to be elected on the first count.
Staff at 28 count centres across the country began sorting and collating the ballot papers at 9am.
Turnout is estimated at about 45 per cent, in what would be the lowest of any presidential election since the 26 County state began.
Much of the attrntion in the election results has focused on the performance of TV celebrity and business figure, Peter Casey, who shot to prominence in the last two weeks of campaigning after making hostile comments about Ireland’s Traveller community.
Mr Casey had attacked Travellers during the campaign, saying they never paid taxes and that they were “basically people camping on people’s land”. The controversy escalated after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar berated Casey for being “racist”.
Amid a huge furore, Casey said he had considered withdrawing from the contest before doubling down with an attack on social welfare recipients. His support ultimately vaulted from last place with 2% to an expected final tally of over 20%.
The first constituency to declare this afternoon confirmed the expected big victory for Higgins but also a shockingly high vote for Casey. The Galway East result showed Michael D Higgins received 53% of the votes, with Casey following in second with 33%. The other four candidates each received less than 5% of the vote.
While it could be the largest ever vote for a President, with Mr Higgins likely to take between 60% and 70% of the vote in Dublin, the big story has been Mr Casey’s comments on Travellers and people on social welfare.
The otherwise affable Derry native was transformed into a media darling with publicity that may have launched his political career. He vowed to contest the next Presidential election in another seven years ‘if he is not Taoiseach by then’.
Tallies in a number of rural constituencies with large Traveller populations showed the TV star performing strongly.
The Dragon’s Den host, who also holds US residency, denied that his remarks about the gypsy-like community, recently awarded the official status of a distinct ethnic group, had helped his support shoot up. He told RTE television there was a “breath of fresh air coming” through politics now.
Casey said that he felt his support stemmed from “middle Ireland feeling tired”, paying all the bills. Ireland was “not a nation of hand outs” but they need a hand up, he said.
He stood over his remarks on Travellers, saying that “There are beautiful houses for them to live in, if they wanted to live in them they could have months ago.”
But Travellers groups this morning voiced concern at the expected election outcome and support for Mr Casey.
These were “worrying developments” for Irish politic, according to a Pavee Point representative. Martin Collins said Casey had used the race card and brought negative politics from the United States to Ireland and made the country “more divisive”.
It was a disappointing election for Sinn Fein and its candidate Liadh Ni Riada, who is battling to come third with 7-8% of the vote. Apart from a controversy over her pledge to wear the Poppy symbol of the British Legion if she was inaugurated as President, and her withdrawn claim to be earning the average industrial wage as an MEP, her campaign failed to make an impact.
Exit polls showed roughly half Sinn Fein’s own supporters opted for Micheal D Higgins or Peter Casey. Former Sinn Fein leader Adams admitted the party had failed to motivate some of its own base. He said that people had not find the vote relevant.
“The big issue was the irrelevancy of the contest for a section of our vote,” he said. “And then, the assumption - and people were telling us this as we were canvassing - that Micheal D, as the incumbent, was going to be returned.”
Party leader Mary Lou McDonald told reporters she was disappointed with the result and wished they had polled more strongly but said “I stand absolutely over our decision” to contest the election.
She said the presidency should not be 14 years “without punctuation”. Ms McDonald criticised other parties for abdicating their responsibilities as leaders.
“We understood as a political party we should field a candidate,” she said.
Ms McDonald has faced criticism within Sinn Fein for her party’s efforts to enter into a coalition government in Dublin and its transition away from traditional republican politics to more mainstream, youth-oriented campaigns.
Asked about the implications for her leadership she said: “I am the leader of our party. I’ll lead on.”
Meanwhile, party leaders and other politicians have been congratulating Michael D Higgins ahead of an official announcement, expected later tonight.
Labour party leader Brendan Howlin said Mr Higgins had been an exemplary President and that there was no one better to represent the people of Ireland during the next seven years.
“Not only does Michael D represent the best of the Labour and trade union tradition in Irish politics, but he has touched the hearts and minds of people from all walks of life, and all political persuasions,” Mr Howlin said.
“Michael D Higgins showed a rare depth of sensibility during the recent centenary commemorations, and he has the authority and authenticity to speak for us all at the sensitive memorials yet to come.”
* A further update on the election results will be provided when counting is concluded this evening.