The Twee man steals show in Irish presidential race

He started as favourite, lost the lead to a celebrity but staged a comeback after a TV showdown

A veteran left-wing human rights activist and campaigner for the arts declared himself yesterday to be "a little overwhelmed" on becoming Ireland's President in waiting after a campaign notable for mud-slinging and unprecedented volatility among voters. Michael D Higgins will be inaugurated on Armistice Day, 11 November, the day after Mary McAleese, the serving President, leaves office.

Mr Higgins, a 70-year-old poet and member of the Irish Labour Party, was elected by a handsome margin, although a few days before votes were cast on Thursday, he was trailing a previously unknown candidate.

The irony is that Irish voters, who throughout the campaign were clearly seeking a person of independence because of widespread disillusion with politics, wound up electing a figure from one of the conventional parties.

However, the new president is regarded as a fairly unconventional politician, noticeably to the left in Irish terms. He is something of an iconoclast, has a pronounced independent streak and is by no means a creature of the establishment.

During the long and bruising campaign, he started as favourite in the opinion polls. But he then lost the lead because of a remarkable surge by a dark horse – Sean Gallagher, a television personality on Dragons' Den – whose emphasis on the entrepreneurial struck a chord in a country of high unemployment.

Even when behind in the polls, Mr Higgins maintained a dignified demeanour. His restraint enhanced his image as a person of presidential potential. His stance – which he sustained despite moments of obvious anxiety – was vindicated when Mr Gallagher's campaign imploded three days before the vote.

The defining moment came last Monday. During a television debate, Mr Gallagher responded unconvincingly to accusations that he was much more intimately connected than he had admitted to the Fianna Fail party, a toxic political brand.

As a result, his phenomenal rise was followed by an equally phenomenal plunge, many of his supporters deserting him to join the Higgins camp. In the first count – Ireland uses proportional representation in its elections – Mr Higgins had 40 per cent of the vote while Mr Gallagher took 28 per cent.

Mr Higgins said yesterday: "I feel a little overwhelmed. I'm very, very happy. It is something I prepared for, something I thought about for a long while. I hope it will be a presidency that will enable everybody to be part of and proud of."

The new president has the advantage of being personally popular both with the public and the political classes, where he is regarded as an individualist. While he is viewed as possessing gravitas, he is often satirised for his short stature and high-pitched voice which, together with his commitment to the arts, have brought him the nickname of Michael Twee.

The accusation universally regarded as the killer blow to the Gallagher campaign came from Sinn Fein candidate Martin McGuinness, who caused a stir when he unexpectedly entered the race. His intervention did not materially benefit his own vote, but it earned Sinn Fein the distinction of changing the election result.

Mr McGuinness came third in the poll with 13.7 per cent, which was an advance on Sinn Fein's 10 per cent in a general election earlier this year. While this is not regarded as a triumph, it is a significant step in the party's project of building a major political base in the Irish Republic.

Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Fein described it as a milestone election for the party. She added: "There was a time when republicans would have been considered a marginal voice in southern politics, and we have changed that. Now we are part and parcel of the political fabric of this state, the political conversation, and for us it is very significant."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there