His IRA history hasn't gone away; you know

Martin McGuinness has slipped to a 25-1 outsider in a field of seven for the Irish presidency

Voters in the Irish Republic go to the polls on Thursday to elect the country's next president after a campaign of unprecedented political thrills and spills. The main feature has been the heated questions about the IRA past of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, who has faced often hostile interrogation.

The seven candidates are a colourful cast of characters who include a former winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, an openly gay academic and one of the dragons from the Dublin version of Dragons' Den.

The campaign has featured potentially embarrassing media revelations dwelling on the pasts of some of the candidates, with an unusual amount of mud-slinging concerning family, financial and sexual matters. Various threats about libel actions have been made. This is extraordinary for Irish presidential elections, which are normally reasonably sedate affairs.

Last week's drama came from the husband of Rosemary Scallon who, as Dana, won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970. Damien Scallon claimed a tyre blow-out on his wife's campaign car was caused by damage inflicted in an attempt to "injure or murder us". Police are investigating the incident, although tyre experts have said the damage was consistent with the vehicle being driven after sustaining a puncture. During one television debate, Ms Scallon became emotional and was comforted by some of her rivals.

The winner of the contest will have a hard act to follow: the outgoing Mary McAleese is regarded as an outstanding president, particularly for her role in engineering the Queen's hugely successful visit to Ireland earlier this year.

Traditional politics has been shattered by upheavals sparked by the Irish economic nosedive, which brought about the near-collapse of the once mighty Fianna Fail. Although historically the party has won almost all presidential elections, its standing is now so low that it decided not to field a candidate. This created a gap for Sinn Fein, which dispatched Martin McGuinness south of the border, causing a stir early in the campaign because many in the south found it difficult to come to terms with the idea of a former IRA leader serving in such a symbolically charged office as head of the Irish state. Dublin commentators spoke out strenuously against this prospect, and there was widespread scepticism about his assertion that he had not been a member of the IRA since 1974.

One dramatic moment came when Mr McGuinness was confronted, in front of television cameras, by the son of an Irish soldier shot dead by the IRA. David Kelly demanded of him: "I believe you know the names of the killers of my father and I want you to tell me who they are." When the Sinn Fein leader denied he knew the names, Mr Kelly called him a liar.

Mr McGuinness has been campaigning on his record as a peacemaker in the north and as an anti-establishment candidate who will stand up for those in economic difficulties. But, probably because the IRA question will not go away, he has lost ground, slipping from 17 to 11 per cent in opinion polls. Dublin bookies now rate him as a 25-1 outsider, well behind the favourites in what is being seen as a two-horse race.

Out in front for most of the campaign has been Michael D Higgins, an Irish Labour Party veteran with a long-standing interest in culture and the arts and international human-rights issues. But a late surge has seen him overtaken by entrepreneur Sean Gallagher who, though only on the fringes of politics, became a familiar face on Dragons' Den. The latest opinion polls have him well ahead of Mr Higgins.

Mr Gallagher has risen spectacularly in the polls partly because of a dynamic campaign and partly because of his emphasis on business expansion and job creation. This struck a chord in a country hit hard by cuts and high unemployment. Just last week a major insurance firm announced it is cutting almost 1,000 Dublin jobs. Some candidates, regarding Mr Gallagher as the man to stop, are emphasising his past membership of Fianna Fail.

The post of president was once purely ceremonial, but the McAleese presidency is regarded as having greatly strengthened Anglo-Irish relations and opened lines of contact with northern loyalists. Many of the candidates have been saying or implying that in office they, too, would expand its boundaries in significant ways.

The seven contenders

Michael D Higgins Labour

Involved in politics for four decades. As minister for culture, was instrumental in establishing Irish-language television station TG4. A poet and writer, he is a regular at the Galway races. Latest odds: 2/7

Sean Gallagher Independent

A judge on the RTE One version of Dragons' Den since 2009. A former Fianna Fail member, he left in May to run as an independent with a "semi-detached relationship" to the party. 9/4

Martin McGuinness Sinn Fein

Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, McGuinness has struggled during the campaign with the baggage of his years as a commander in the Provisional IRA. But his attempts to focus on his work as a politician have had limited success. 25/1

Gay Mitchell Fine Gael

Former lord mayor of Dublin and minister of state for European affairs. As an MEP, he courted controversy this year when he refused to reveal his expenses – explaining why the standard bearer of the biggest coalition partner in government is struggling in the polls. 40/1

David Norris Independent

Gay rights campaigner Norris pulled out of the presidential race in August after it emerged that he had written letters to the Israeli authorities on Senate notepaper appealing for clemency in the case of a former lover accused of raping an under-age boy. But the Senator returned to the contest after polls showed that he was still one of the most popular candidates. 66/1

Mary Davis Independent

"Pride at home, respect abroad" is Davis's campaign slogan. A mother of four from County Mayo, she is the Special Olympics president and managing director in Europe and Eurasia. She has served in the Council of State, Ireland's equivalent of a privy council, under the outgoing president, Mary McAleese. 80/1

Rosemary Scallon Independent

London-born Scallon's first taste of public life came when, known as Dana, she won the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest with the ballad "All Kinds of Everything". This is her third attempt at the presidency: she was defeated in 1997 and failed to secure a nomination in 2002. Married with four children, Scallon holds dual US and Irish citizenship. 250/1

Odds taken from Ladbrokes.com

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