By Conor Humphries and Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - A former culture minister and part-time poet from Ireland's junior coalition party was set to be elected president on Friday, beating a reality TV star and an ex-IRA commander, as his main rival conceded defeat after a first count of votes.
A victory for Labour's Michael D. Higgins would be a relief for the government after senior partners Fine Gael posted their worst presidential performance while ex-guerrilla fighter Martin McGuinness's Sinn Fein opposition party made further gains.
Higgins, a critic of Israel's blockade of Gaza who has been a mainstay of human rights demonstrations for decades, won 40 percent of first preference votes putting him 11 percentage points clear of nearest rival, businessman Sean Gallagher.
"I'm happy with the vote and the support. I'm very glad that it is so decisive... It will enable me to be a president for all of the people," Higgins, 70, told reporters.
A full result was due later on Friday or early Saturday due to a complicated electoral system and a manual system of counting votes.
Weeks of mud-slinging between the seven candidates vying for the largely ceremonial role have distracted Ireland from its financial crisis.
But they also raised serious questions about the role in Irish politics of Sinn Fein, once the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and about the depth of support for the center-right Fine Gael who swept to power in February.
McGuinness was in third place after the first round of counting with 14 percent, an improvement on the record 10 percent of votes Sinn Fein secured in February's election.
"It's been a pretty good day for Sinn Fein, they've achieved what they set out to do which is to grow their vote and to try and flush out the more negative comments they can only expect in the Republic," said David Farrell, professor of politics at University College Dublin.
"It's more the tortoise than the hare with Sinn Fein, they have a long-term strategy. The next election is a few years away and this is simply one important stepping stone."
MCGUINNESS SPLITS OPINION
McGuinness, once a leading figure in the IRA's fight against British rule in Northern Ireland, shook up an initially dull race, splitting opinion and prompting some government ministers to paint him as a villain.
Sinn Fein, who share power north of the border, has always campaigned for a united Ireland and is trying to move into the political mainstream in the Republic of Ireland, where its members were banned from speaking on the media until 1993.
Buoyed by public anger over an economic crisis that led to an EU/IMF bailout of Ireland late last year, Sinn Fein tripled its score to a record 14 of parliament's 166 seats in February but faced criticism for putting McGuinness in the field.
"I felt that this was going to bring the reactionaries out but this is just something the establishment in Dublin is going to have to get used to," Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, once interned as a guerrilla suspect, told national broadcaster RTE.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny's party was in struggle for fourth place on 6 percent, a fraction of the 36 percent of the vote the party secured in February.
Irish presidential elections are contested more on personality than policy or party and the Fine Gael candidate, Gay Mitchell, consistently failed to shine.
"It's not a judgment on Fine Gael, it's the candidate. They put the wrong man up. He wasn't their first choice and it backfired," said Theresa Bannon, a 34-year-old nurse.
Front-runner Higgins' Labour party also looked set to win a 38th parliamentary seat in Dublin, becoming the first ruling party to win a by-election since 1982 and reinforcing the government's already large lower-house majority.
The results indicated Gallagher, an independent candidate who shot to fame through reality TV show Dragon's Den, had failed to recover from a scandal that broke after the final opinion poll gave him a 15 point lead.
Disclosures over his ties to Fianna Fail, the party blamed for Ireland's economic collapse, at the end of a grubby race prompted a big swing back to Higgins who ran a relatively low profile but steady campaign.
Results from referendums on whether to allow the government to cut the pay of judges and to boost the power of parliamentary committees will also be known on Saturday.
(Additional reporting by Carmel Crimmins; Editing by Myra MacDonald)