Ireland’s newly re-elected president Michael D Higgins declared in his acceptance speech that the country’s voters had chosen “hope over fear” as he warned against divisive rhetoric.
Speaking at Dublin Castle after being declared the landslide winner after the first count, Mr Higgins said the Republic was in “a time of transformation” and he pointed to a “momentum for empathy, compassion, inclusion and solidarity which must be recognised and celebrated”.
Mr Higgins received 822,566 votes, 56 per cent of the total poll, in a historically low turn-out, to secure another seven years in Áras an Uachtaráin. It is the highest vote ever in any of the eight presidential elections in the history of the State.
In addition, voters overwhelmingly backed removing the offence of blasphemy from the constitution in a referendum. The referendum saw 64.85 per cent vote to remove the prohibition on blasphemy.
At 43.87 per cent, the 2018 ballot had the lowest turnout of any presidential election.
A veteran politician, poet and sociologist, Mr Higgins earned the largest personal mandate of any politician in Irish history, winning every constituency across Ireland.
“The people have made a choice as to which version of Irishness they want reflected at home and abroad. It is the making of hope they wish to share rather than the experience of any exploitation of division or fear,” he said in the acceptance speech.
Mr Higgins also stated his desire to bring fresh ideas to his second term to help the country face challenges such as Brexit and climate change.
Mr Higgins put a particular emphasis on sustainability, saying: “During the next seven years of the presidency I hope we will be able to engage on the basis of fresh ideas, with challenges that are both local and global.
“I look forward to being part of a transformation that values ideas, and privileges a commitment to deliver sustainability at home and abroad.”
Mr Higgin’s nearest rival, US taxpayer and former Dragons Den judge Peter Casey, finished on 23 per cent after he rode a populist wave marked by hostility towards the Travelling community and social welfare benefit recipients.
Sinn Féin was the only party officially contesting this election, as all others declined to stand a candidate as a show of support for President Higgins.
All of the other contenders polled below 10 per cent. Liadh Ní Riada, the Sinn Féin candidate; who has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2014; Sean Gallagher, a businessman and former Dragon’s Den judge who also ran in the 2011 presidential election, losing to Higgins; Joan Freeman, a psychologist and founder of suicide intervention charity Pieta House; and Gavin Duffy, the third Dragon, an entrepreneur who has worked as an advisor to both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in the past.
As head of state, the role of president in Ireland is largely ceremonial, with little political power or influence, something Dr Eoin O’Malley, a leading political scientist in Dublin City University, suggests many of the candidates misunderstood in their campaigns.
“Most of them appear not to have read or understand the constitution, which is worrying. I think because the contest was so hard to win, the parties stepped back, but the councils enjoy the attention, so nominated candidates in a most indiscriminating way,” he said. “Next time the parties will take an interest again.”
Mr Higgins, the ninth president of Ireland, has promised to represent the voice of the Irish people, commenting that along with combatting climate change and sustainability, “the urgent need to end the scourge of violence against women cannot be deferred”.
He added: “I will, on your behalf, represent an Ireland committed to a peaceful world and a shared planet and together we will ensure that Ireland’s voice matters. I will continue to work forever better relationships, North and South, east and west, with Europe and our multilateral institutions.”