Varadkar hails ‘historic victory’ for Michael D Higgins
Ireland’s premier Leo Varadkar has hailed the presidential election as an “historic victory” as Michael D Higgins could receive a million first preference votes.
Mr Varadkar was speaking as the last few constituencies declared an overwhelming victory for the incumbent.
Mr Higgins is believed to have secured over half of the first preference votes.
“I am really pleased at the result tonight, this is an historic victory, a resounding victory for President Higgins, who is going to be re-elected to a second term,” Mr Varadkar said.
“His vote may well approach a million first preference votes, which would be an historic result and he is going to be the highest polling candidate, topping the poll in every single constituency.
“So this is a resounding endorsement from all sections of the Irish community, every constituency, every age group, rural and urban, so I am really pleased.”
While Mr Higgins is on course for a potentially historic winning tally, much focus has been 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.
Sinn Fein on the other hand look on course for a disappointing result, with candidate Ms Ni Riada potentially only going to secure half of the support achieved by the late Martin McGuinness in 2011.
Mr Higgins’s 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.
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.
He added: “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.”
Speaking at Dublin Castle, Mr Casey refuted once again that he had used the racist card to gain his vote.
“You can’t be a racist if you don’t regard the people you are talking to as a different race,” he said. “They’re not. They’re Irish and they’re proud Irish people so that’s not possible really.”
Mr Casey hinted he might now turn his focus to securing another elected office, potentially in the Dail.
“I have had about 30 minutes over coffee with my wife this morning, I think we need to sit down, take stock and make a decision very shortly,” he said.
Mr Casey said he was “still waiting on the Taoiseach to apologise” for asking people not to vote for him in the election.
He said it was “disgraceful” Mr Varadkar had called on the public not to vote for him over his comments on the Traveller community.
Staff at 28 count centres across the country began sorting and collating the ballot papers at 9am.
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 the referendum will be passed by a significant majority.