Higgins looks set for second term as Irish president

Michael D Higgins looks set to secure a second term as Irish president with a landslide margin as counting in the election continues.

While Mr Higgins is on course for a potentially historic winning tally – with exit polls suggesting a vote over 56% – much focus in the early stages of the count is on the contender set to come second, controversial businessman Peter Casey.

Mr Casey’s vote appears to have surged on the back of his critical comments about the Travelling community and assertions that Ireland has a culture of welfare dependency.

Election candidate Peter Casey
Election candidate Peter Casey speaks to the media at the convention centre in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)

Sinn Fein on the other hand look on course for a disappointing result, with candidate Liadh Ni Riada potentially only going to secure half of the support achieved by the late Martin McGuinness in 2011.

Mr Higgins’ communications director Bernard Harbour said the exit polls demonstrated that people were very happy with how the president had conducted himself in his first seven years in office.

“I think it shows resounding support for the message he was giving to people, which was that he has been, and will be, a president for all of the people, a message of quality and inclusiveness that everybody in Ireland should be represented and should be represented well by their president,” he told the Press Association.

President and Sabina Higgins have cast their votes in the Presidential elections and the referendum on the proposal to change the Constitution of Ireland in relation to the issue of blasphemy. #Aras18pic.twitter.com/OKfLfnHikt

— President of Ireland (@PresidentIRL) October 26, 2018

The exit polls results put former Irish Dragons’ Den star Mr Casey in second with about 20% of first-preference votes.

His support had been as low as 1% in opinion polls in the early stages of the campaign but his vote appears to have rocketed after what rivals characterised as a “populist” move to criticise Travellers and welfare recipients.

Mr Casey denied those controversial comments were the reason for his apparent vote surge, though said if he had won the election he would have advocated moving members of the Travelling community into Dublin’s vast Phoenix Park.

The millionaire said his advocacy for “middle Ireland” – people who are struggling to pay bills and get on the housing ladder – resonated with the voters.

“The real reason I got a bump in the polls is because I spoke out and said middle Ireland, they are the people who are hurting, they are the people who got nothing out of the last Budget and they are the ones who are paying all the bills.”

Mr Casey hinted that he might now turn his focus to securing another elected office, potentially in the Dail.

Staff at 28 count centres across the country began sorting and collating the ballot papers at 9am. Turnout in the election was low.

Irish presidential election
Vote-counting in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)

An RTE exit poll predicted Mr Higgins, 77, received 58.1% of first-preference votes, while an Irish Times poll projected Mr Higgins topped the vote with 56%.

If the exit polls are correct, Mr Higgins is likely to be easily re-elected on the first count for a second seven-year term.

If he secures more than 56.3% of the vote he will record the highest ever winning percentage in a presidential election. That would be all the more remarkable given it was a six-horse race – the 56.3% won by Eamon de Valera in 1959 was in a two-way contest.

More than 3,400 people were interviewed for the RTE poll by Red C outside 138 polling stations across the country on Friday.

The results indicate Sinn Fein MEP Ms Ni Riada received 7.4% of the vote, Senator Joan Freeman 6.3% and businessman and former Dragons’ Den investor Sean Gallagher 5.5%.

The Irish Times poll, conducted by Ipsos/MRBI, questioned more than 4,300 voters outside 160 polling stations across the country.

Its results put Mr Gallagher at 7%, Ms Ni Riada on 8% and Ms Freeman on 6%.

Irish presidential election
Sinn Fein MEP and presidential candidate Liadh Ni Riada casts her vote in Cork (Aoife Moore/PA)

The results of both polls, which were published when polling stations across the country closed on Friday night, indicate that Gavin Duffy, the third Dragon in the race, secured the lowest number of votes at 2%.

More than 3.2 million people were entitled to vote in 40 constituencies across the country.

As well as deciding who they wanted to see in the president’s residence at Aras an Uachtarain for the next seven years, the electorate was also asked whether they wanted to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Irish constitution.

The exit polls suggest that the referendum will be passed by a significant majority.

RTE’s exit poll found that 71.1% said they had voted Yes and that 26.3% had voted No, while the Irish Times poll predicted that 69% had backed the proposal and 31% had voted against the change.

Opinion polls throughout the campaign consistently placed Mr Higgins as the favourite to win, despite being plagued by questions over presidential expenses.

During the campaign, Mr Higgins also came in for criticism over his use of the Government’s jet to travel from Dublin to Belfast.

Mr Casey faced calls to withdraw after he claimed Travellers were simply people camping on someone else’s land and that Ireland’s recognition of them as members of an ethnic minority was “a load of nonsense”.

Mr Gallagher is running for the presidency for a second time after a failed bid in 2011. He secured more than half a million first-time votes at the time.

During the campaign, however, he was pressed over what he had done in public life in the past seven years.

Ms Ni Riada was forced to reject claims that she did not support the HPV vaccine, Ms Freeman was quizzed on a 130,000 euro loan she had received from donors to fund her campaign, while Mr Duffy faced questioned over his past driving convictions.

Mr Higgins is the country’s ninth president. He was elected in 2011.

If re-elected, the poet will become the fifth president to serve for two terms. Four presidents – Sean T O’Kelly, Mr de Valera, Patrick Hillery and Mary McAleese – served for 14 years.

Douglas Hyde, Ireland’s first president, was elected in 1938.

A result is expected by Saturday evening.