A pot shot from McGuinness hands Irish Presidency to poet

Vote swung away from frontrunner after republican's attack during television debate

A veteran Labour Party politician is to become the next President of the Irish Republic following a see-saw campaign in which an extraordinary late surge brought him victory.

Michael D. Higgins, poet and scholar, finished top of the poll after a bruising campaign in which he managed to remain above the fray as rivals became embroiled in dogfights and came under intense media scrutiny.

He refrained from negative campaigning while independent Sean Gallagher, following weeks as frontrunner, wilted under a late onslaught.

The irony is that Mr Higgins, regarded in his younger days as something of a radical, probably won because he was seen as the safest pair of hands on offer in comparison with the six other candidates. Mr Gallagher conceded to Mr Higgins long before the count had ended last night. Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, who moved across the border from Northern Ireland to contest the election, came third in what will be regarded as an advance for his party taking it closer to the south's political mainstream.

An attack during a televised debate on Monday by Mr McGuinness on Mr Gallagher is credited with inflicting fatal damage on the independent's campaign. He had been far ahead of Mr Higgins in the opinion polls, running on a platform emphasising enterprise and job creation. But he gave an unconvincing response to the McGuinness accusation that he had collected a cheque for the deeply unpopular Fianna Fail party. After this Mr Gallagher's support went into free-fall, a condition also experienced by some of the minor candidates who went up and down in a campaign described as a game of snakes and ladders.

The Labour Party leader, Eamon Gilmore, said yesterday: "There's no doubt that what happened on the Frontline programme on Monday night had a huge bearing on the outcome."

Jack Murray, one of Mr Gallagher's campaign managers, said that a more experienced person would have dealt differently with the television allegations, which could have led to a different result.

In a last-minute opinion poll a majority of voters said the controversy surrounding Mr Gallagher had affected their decision, with 35 per cent disclosing that they had been influenced "a lot".

Mr McGuinness himself did not benefit from the Gallagher implosion. In the initial stages of the campaign he polled more strongly, but his support ebbed as the Dublin media and a number of victims of IRA violence attacked his republican record. He will now return north to resume his post as Northern Ireland's deputy chief minister.

Although the Labour Party is part of the governing coalition, Mr Higgins has always been regarded as an individualist rather than an obedient party man. He overcame doubts about his health and age – he is in his early 70s.

One of the other candidates, independent David Norris, said of him yesterday: "Although he is a Labour Party member, Michael D – like myself – is a little bit of a maverick. I think it's good to have somebody who will be in a position morally and intellectually to speak out on behalf of the marginalised."

Mr Higgins's website describes him as "a renowned author, poet and speaker, a principled, eloquent and passionate public figure and statesman". As President during his seven-year term he will have no executive power but will hope to set an optimistic tone and to stress that Irish spirit can overcome its present economic difficulties.

Transcript: The Decisive Moment

Presidential candidate Sean Gallagher was in poll position to win the Irish election, until he appeared on RTE's Frontline programme for the final televised debate on Monday. Here's how it all went wrong for the former frontrunner when he was quizzed about a mysterious envelope he received for the unpopular Fianna Fail party:

Pat Kenny (presenter):

Sinn Fein are saying they're going to produce the man who gave you the cheque for five grand. Now, do you want to change what you said or are you still saying that it just simply didn't happen? Are they up to "dirty tricks" or what?

Sean Gallagher:

Well, you know, I've always tried to stay above any negative campaigning ... I don't want to cast aspersions on him ...

PK: So you know who it is?

SG: But he's a convicted criminal, a fuel smuggler, investigated by the Criminal Assets Bureau, and rented the office to Gerry Adams, Martin's colleague, in the last general election. I don't want to get involved...

PK: Did you get a cheque from this guy or not?

SG: I have no recollection of getting a cheque from this guy...

Martin McGuinness: Sean should answer the question. Did he go to a man's house, the man who spoke to me on the phone several hours ago, and collect a cheque for €5,000?

SG: What Martin has said is that I drove to the man's house to deliver a photograph of the event [a fundraiser] and that he gave me a cheque. What I have done...I may well have delivered the photograph. If he gave me an envelope I...[holds hands up]...If he gave me a cheque it was made out to Fianna Fail headquarters, and it was delivered, and that was that. It had nothing to do with me.

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