A reality television star is vying with a politician-turned-poet to become Ireland’s next president, as voters go to the polls today to elect their ninth head of state since independence 87 years ago.
Sean Gallagher, 49, an independent and judge on the “Dragons' Den” show, and the Labour Party’s Michael Higgins, 70, are the frontrunners to win the mostly ceremonial role, according to Paddy Power Plc, the country’s biggest bookmaker. Seven candidates are running for the post, including Northern Irish Republican Martin McGuinness.
The race is tight. Gallagher opened a lead over Higgins by focusing on the post’s potential to reduce unemployment. The entrepreneur’s prospects then dimmed after he came under attack in a televised debate on Oct. 24 over his links with Fianna Fail, the party that presided over the collapse of the economy and loss of financial sovereignty.
“Before the debate, he was a shoo-in,” said Richard Colwell, managing director at RED C, a Dublin-based polling company. “Now, I’m not so sure. Voters had been looking for an independent, non-establishment candidate.”
Polls opened at 7 a.m. and will close at 10 p.m., with the results due on Saturday evening.
As well as picking the successor for President Mary McAleese, voters will decide on proposals allowing the government to cut the pay of judges and give parliamentary committees more power to carry out investigations.
“Betting patterns are erratic and in our opinion this race is far too close to call,” said Ken Robertson, a spokesman for Paddy Power in Dublin.
Ireland, home of the euro area’s worst banking crisis, was last year forced to seek 67.5 billion euros ($94.3 billion) of aid after losses became too big to handle following the collapse of its real-estate market in 2008. The economy has shrunk about 15 percent since 2007 and unemployment has tripled to 14.3 percent.
Gallagher had the support of 40 percent of those polled in a survey published Oct. 24 by the Irish Times. The report gave Monaghan-born Gallagher a 15 percentage-point lead over Higgins, and 25 point lead over McGuinness of Sinn Fein.
Support for Gallagher doubled in the past three weeks as voters focused on his record as an entrepreneur and celebrity on “Dragons' Den,” the reality show where a panel deliberates on whether to invest in fledgling businesses.
At the height of Ireland’s real estate boom, Gallagher employed about 100 people as the owner of Smarthomes, a company that installs cabling and technology in properties.
“I’ve seen him on Dragons’ Den, he knows how to make money,” Lynn Walsh, 34, a mother of two from Tallaght in west Dublin, said as Gallagher campaigned in the district before the debate aired. “I’ll vote for him.”
His association with Fianna Fail, which lost power in February after suffering its worst result in a general election, counted against him. Gallagher said on his website that he’s no longer involved in any political party, though he’s been a “sporadic” member of Fianna Fail.
He’s a former adviser to a Fianna Fail minister, as well as sitting on the party’s national executive.
“It is sad if we start demonizing people who are grassroots members of organizations,” Gallagher said in an interview in Tallaght on Oct. 21. People “are sick and tired of negative campaigning. I’ve stayed away from it,” he said.
In this week’s debate, McGuinness, a former member of the Irish Republican Army, said Gallagher had collected a check from a Fianna Fail donor last year. Gallagher denies receiving any check after saying during the debate he may have picked up an “envelope” on behalf of the party.
“It’s not so much what he said,” said Colwell at pollster Red C. “It’s more the way he handled it.”
Pollsters and odds makers said views of Gallagher have shifted following the debate. Beforehand, he was 1-4 to win, according to Paddy Power, meaning a 4 euro wager wins 1 euro. Now, he’s 7-4, meaning a 4 euro stake wins 7 euros.
“I don’t like him at all, he’s a celebrity candidate,” said Margaret Maher, 60, from Dublin. “I’d prefer Higgins or McGuinness. At least they’ve done something.”
Higgins, whose Labour Party is part of the Fine Gael-led coalition government, may be the main beneficiary. A human rights campaigner and poet, Higgins is a former arts and culture minister, member of parliament and senator, in contrast to Gallagher who has never held elected office.