Irish presidential election 2018: Michael D Higgins on course to win second term with landslide vote

Current president has served since 2011 and is preparing to face five challengers on 26 October

Ben Kelly@BenKellyTweets
Thursday 25 October 2018 09:41
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Michael D Higgins has served as the ninth president of Ireland since 2011, and confirmed in July that he wishes to serve a second seven year term when his time is up this autumn.

An extremely popular president, he is being supported in his re-election campaign by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party, but a decision by Sinn Féin to field a candidate against him ensured that an election had to take place.

The election will take place on Friday 26 October, alongside a referendum on removing blasphemy as an offence from the country’s constitution. President Higgins will be a hard man to beat. Polls in recent weeks have found Higgins commanding support of anything between 66 and 71 per cent of the vote.

Who is Michael D Higgins?

Born in Limerick in 1941, Michael D Higgins had an academic career in the 1960s and 1970s, teaching sociology in Ireland and the US.

He became a well known and respected politician long before winning the presidency. Originally a member of the Labour Party, he served as a senator in the 1980s, before representing Galway West in the Dáil from 1987 to 2011.

Higgins campaigning in the 2011 Irish presidential election

He was president of his party from 2003 until 2011, and as a fluent Irish speaker, was Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in the 1990s. During this period he also became a published poet, and presented TV documentaries.

He married his wife Sabina in 1974 and they have four children, including Mary Alice, who currently serves as a Irish senator.

President of Ireland

In 2011, Higgins entered the Irish presidential election, which was contested by a record seven candidates.

The campaign is remembered as being uncharacteristically brutal, with the characters of the candidates coming under intense and deeply personal scrutiny. But Mr Higgins emerged unscathed and took 57 per cent of the vote.

The president is Ireland’s head of state, a largely ceremonial role, but which nevertheless wields the power to refer government bills to the supreme court if he or she deems them unconstitutional.

Mr Higgins has enjoyed a positive seven year term. He has overseen a period of important centenaries in Ireland, such as the 1916 Easter Rising, and was commended for marking them appropriately.

In 2014, he paid the first Irish state visit to the UK, during which he stayed with the Queen at Windsor Castle, and addressed both houses of parliament, in an important step for improving relations between the neighbouring countries.

President Higgins with Queen Elizabeth during his 2014 state visit to the UK

He has also been president during a period of great social change in Ireland, namely with the landmark referendums on marriage equality and abortion.

Considered to be very left wing by Irish standards, Mr Higgins has done a good job of rising above politics during his presidency, although he did appear to question the wisdom of tax cuts ahead of the 2016 general election. He also ruffled feathers with his glowing tribute upon the death of Fidel Castro.

An ironic adoration for the pint-sized pensioner grew based on his curious look and his range of interests and abilities – he can quote Latin at the drop of a hat, and never misses a national Gaelic match.

But over the years, this has grown into a more genuine affection, particularly from a younger generation, who enjoy his unwittingly cool publicity photos, and his ever-present Bernese mountain dogs Bród and Síoda.

He has even been nicknamed ‘Miggledy’ after a child’s misspelling of his name went viral on Twitter.

Who are the candidates standing against Higgins?

President Higgins is being challenged by a Sinn Féin candidate, and four independents - including a mental health advocate and three businessmen from the Irish TV version of Dragon's Den.

Liadh Ní Riada is a Sinn Féin MEP in the Irish parliament, who has history with Higgins as they both worked together in the establishment of TG4, the country's Irish language TV station. She will be hoping to build on the 13% vote garnered by Martin McGuinness when he ran as the party candidate in 2011.

Joan Freeman is a psychologist and a founder of the suicide prevention charity Pieta House who has been an independent senator in Ireland since 2016. She is standing on a platform of advocating mental health and wellness.

Sean Gallagher is a businessman and a star of TV's Dragon's Den who came second to Higgins in 2011, after having been the frontrunner in that campaign. He is joined in the race by his business and TV peers Gavin Duffy and Peter Casey.

Can Higgins be beaten?

During the 2011 campaign, Mr Higgins indicated he would only serve one term if he was elected. His change of heart has not really been held against him, and most of the main parties have stood aside and given him their backing.

He has faced criticism during this campaign for issues around his expenses - described as 'extravagant' by some - although the general consensus is that this is an issue to be looked at within the general reforming of the presidency, rather than a slight on Higgins' character. He was also criticised for his refusal to attend all presidential debates, although he did take part in three over the past two weeks.

President Higgins and his wife Sabina introduce Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to their dogs Bród and Síoda during a visit by the royal couple to Dublin in July (PA)

Polls in recent weeks have found that Higgins is on course for a landslide re-election - with his numbers appearing only to have risen across the campaign. A poll from the Irish Times and Ipsos MRBI on 17 October placed him on 66 per cent of the vote, and such is the split among the other candidates, it appears impossible for any of them to seriously threaten him.

The real questions remaining are how much Higgins will win by, and whether any of the other candidates will get over the 12.5 per cent required to get back their deposit.

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