And they're off: Polling continuing to elect the ninth President of the country
Published 27/10/2011 | 05:00
VOTERS across Ireland go to the polls today to elect the country's ninth president.
A record seven candidates have been vying for support with the last 72 hours of the campaign marked by bitter claim and counter-claims involving leading contender Sean Gallagher.
The independent, who was a political fundraiser for the Fianna Fail party in 2008, has been attacked over claims he personally requested and collected €5,000 cheque from a businessman for a meet-and-greet with then-taoiseach Brian Cowen.
He has also been under pressure over financial transactions in his businesses and despite him giving some explanations confusion remains over a directors' loan.
Other contenders are Labour Party veteran Michael D Higgins, installed as odds-on favourite yesterday, and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, who resigned as Northern Ireland's deputy first minister to run and led the charge against Mr Gallagher at the last live debate on Monday.
Next on the bookies list are Gay Mitchell - of the Government Fine Gael party but who has failed to garner support from his own political grassroots - and Senator David Norris, an independent, a former Trinity College Dublin professor and a Joycean scholar.
Former head of the Special Olympics in Ireland Mary Davis, who brought the world games to Croke Park in Dublin in 2003, and former Eurovision winner Dana Rosemary Scallon, a successful Christian singer in the US and a one-time eurosceptic MEP are expected to run towards the bottom of the poll.
About 3.1 million people are eligible to vote in the single transferable vote system, where the successful candidate needs 50pc of the vote plus one.
Ireland's ninth president follows the respected 14-year two-terms held by Mary McAleese. 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.
The president's residence, Aras an Uachtarain in Dublin's Phoenix Park, was also opened to more guests and visitors than ever before.
Counting of ballots begins on Friday at 9am in 43 constituencies across the country with results relayed to a central database in Dublin Castle.
Early figures from the first counts from individual constituencies can be expected in the evening, with indications of how the poll will pan out later that night.
However, if the pattern of opinion polls in the final week is to be believed no candidate is likely to be within 10% of the 50% plus one majority. And with seven candidates the result may only be decided certainly after a second count and possibly going down to a third or fourth.
The electorate is also being asked to vote on two referendums to make alterations to the Irish constitution.
One is on a proposal to beef up the powers of parliamentary committees in holding inquiries into matters of public interest, while the other would allow the government to reduce the pay of judges.
Also, in west Dublin, voting takes place to fill the seat of the late former finance minister Brian Lenihan.
Mr Gallagher, who cast his ballot with wife and "secret weapon" Trish in Blackrock, Co Louth, said there is a desire for new politics in Ireland.
"We have run a clean, positive campaign which has resonated with people in every part of the country, in every sector and every age group," he said.
Mr Gallagher said he never had any second thoughts about running but would not be drawn on whether a career in politics beckons if the tilt at the presidency fails.
"It's been a tough 72 hours but it's unfortunate what the campaign ended being about in the last couple of days," he said."
"I'm going to take one step at a time. I think we have plenty to focus on in the next 48 hours and I think one campaign at a time is enough, thanks."
Reports from polling stations around the country suggested a generally poor turnout before lunchtime.
Despite the fine autumnal weather, presiding officers warned that the number casting ballots appear down on the general election in February.
Southern counties were reportedly well below the last poll, with mixed returns in the border region.
As expected, commuter counties have reported low figures while rural areas in the Midlands have experienced strong turnout.
Dublin city and county are also both well down on the general election, which saw a real appetite for voting with 70pc of the electorate casting ballots - the highest since 1987.