Michael D. Higgins, a veteran left-wing politician, poet and human rights activist, was declared the winner Saturday of Ireland's presidential election with nearly 57 percent of votes, and pledged to lift the spirits of a struggling nation.
Higgins said he wanted to help revive the public's faith in politicians at a time when Ireland faces record debts, a property market collapse, 15 percent unemployment and a fourth straight year of severe spending cuts.
The diminutive Higgins, 70, beamed with pride as he received congratulations inside Dublin Castle from government leaders and most rival candidates. He announced he would resign immediately as president and member of the Labour Party, the junior member of Ireland's coalition government, because his new role as ceremonial head of state meant he must be "a president for all the people."
Higgins received more than 1 million votes of the nearly 1.8 million cast in Thursday's election. Referring to the 43 percent of registered voters who didn't cast a ballot, he said, "I want to be a president, too, for those who didn't vote, whose trust in public institutions I will encourage and work to recover. ... I dedicate my abilities to the service and welfare of the people of Ireland."
Once Higgins is inaugurated as president Nov. 11, he becomes Ireland's senior ambassador, tasked with building confidence at home and goodwill abroad.
The Irish president wields no government power beyond the ability to refer potentially unconstitutional legislation to Ireland's Supreme Court. But the presidency enjoys considerable freedom to shape Ireland's rapidly secularizing society by bringing different groups together at the Phoenix Park residence and traveling the world expressing a vision of what it should mean to be Irish in the 21st century.
Higgins is a former Galway university lecturer and published poet who has dedicated his four-decade political career to championing Irish culture and left-wing human rights causes worldwide. He also is one of Ireland's most instantly recognized politicians, in part, because of his 5-foot-4 (1.63 meter) stature and much-imitated high voice. Local satirists sometimes depict him as an elf, hobbit or leprechaun talking in riddles and verse.
Higgins served as arts minister in the mid-1990s, during which he launched tax breaks for film production in Ireland and a new TV channel to promote programming in Gaelic, Ireland's native but little-spoken language. Higgins, who has roots in the rural western counties of Clare and Galway, is fluent.
Saturday's result capped a two-day count of ballots to determine who would succeed Mary McAleese, Ireland's popular president since 1997. She said Higgins' win opens "an exciting chapter for ... our global Irish family."
Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern history at University College Dublin, said it was striking that Ireland had elected a politician who for decades had been "a thorn in the side of the establishment" _ and now was the official face of Ireland. He said Higgins' triumph reflected voter anger at right-wing politicians who had brought Ireland to the brink of bankruptcy.
"The idea that the Irish have elected a poet with a social conscience, with a track record in human rights, that's a very positive development," Ferriter said.
Higgins' victory was assured after partial results Friday gave him an unassailable lead versus six other candidates, all of whom conceded defeat long before the final result. Most joined Higgins on stage to praise him, including entrepreneur and reality TV judge Sean Gallagher, who came in second, and former Irish Republican Army commander Martin McGuinness, who came in third.
"Michael D. will be a very, very fine president. He's a man of great intellectual capacity and a man with a huge heart," said McGuinness, deputy leader of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party.
McGuinness, 61, stepped aside as deputy leader of the unity government in the British territory of Northern Ireland so that he could enter the Irish presidential race, a surprise move that shook up the campaign.
He faced stern questioning over his past leadership of the IRA, an outlawed group that killed nearly 1,800 people before calling a 1997 cease-fire. In 2007, he led Sinn Fein into a power-sharing government with Northern Ireland's British Protestant majority in fulfillment of the territory's 1998 peace accord. McGuinness is expected to resume his position as the senior Irish Catholic in that government Nov. 7.
Analysts credit McGuinness with playing a key role in Higgins' victory _ by badly damaging the front runner, Gallagher, in the campaign's last live TV debate Monday. At the time, Gallagher, best known as a judge on an Irish TV competition for business entrepreneurs, was 15 points ahead of Higgins in polls.
McGuinness confronted Gallagher with allegations that he had been heavily involved in collecting undocumented cash donations from businessmen for Fianna Fail. The long-governing party suffered a historic defeat in February after being blamed for the collapse of Ireland's Celtic Tiger boom and last year's humiliating international bailout.
McGuinness cited a conversation he'd just had with one such donor, a convicted border fuel smuggler, who claimed to have handed euro5,000 ($7,000) _ the maximum permitted without being publicly declared under Ireland's corruption laws _ to Gallagher in 2008. Gallagher stumbled in his denial, eliciting incredulous laughter from the audience, and never recovered.
Higgins campaign, http://www.michaeldhiggins.ie/vision/
(This version CORRECTS Corrects misspelling in second paragraph.)