Belfast Telegraph

Turnout poor in Irish presidency poll

Fewer than one person in every two in the Republic is likely to have voted to choose the next Irish president despite a bitterly-fought contest between a record seven candidates.

The result is expected to be a close finish between Independent Sean Gallagher and the Labour Party's Michael D Higgins.

In general, turnout to elect the ninth president of Ireland was low yesterday across the country, with election staff predicting that it was likely to be below 50%. In eight polling stations in the Dublin South Central constituency, average turnout was just 16% at one point yesterday evening.

Mr Higgins had been trailing behind Mr Gallagher in the final opinion polls of the campaign.

But Mr Gallagher suffered a blow from the controversy on RTE's Frontline presidential debate over whether he had accepted a €5,000 cheque on behalf of Fianna Fail. Red C managing director, Richard Colwell, said the lead of up to 14% that Mr Gallagher had over Mr Higgins in the final opinion polls of the campaign was not as large as it appeared.

"You can close it if, when you're losing votes, they go straight to your competitor. If you go down five and they go up five, suddenly that 14% gap is only a 4% gap. And one third of Gallagher's support had Michael D as their next choice," he said.

Labour strategists are also hoping that Mr Higgins' hardcore voters will help him beat off the challenge of Mr Gallagher.

Mr Higgins was accompanied yesterday morning by his wife Sabina and sons Michael and Daniel as he arrived to cast his vote at Bushypark National School in Galway city.

"I'm confident, but everything really depends on the turnout. There is also a great sense of relief at this stage and I don't think I could have improved on the campaign in any way," he said.

The total electorate currently stands at 3.1m.

But experts said that Irish presidential election turnout figures were always likely to be lower than the 70% figure in last February's general election - where parties were mobilising all their volunteers in every constituency.

There was a 46.7% turnout in the 1997 presidential election when Mary McAleese (below) was elected.

In one of the final acts of her term in office yesterday, the north Belfast-born president offered her condolences to the Co Wicklow family of Garda Ciaran Jones, swept to his death in the River Liffey while helping others during the recent floods.

She leaves office on November 10 after a remarkable tenure marked by her 'Building Bridges' theme and work on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Turnout is expected to be boosted slightly by the fact that voters also had two referenda to decide on - one on judges' pay and the other on Oireachtas inquiries.

And in the Dublin West constituency, the by-election to replace former Finance Minister Brian Lenihan was also taking place.

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