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Ireland picks new president from crowded field

Voters are picking Ireland's next president Thursday from a crowded field of seven candidates, among them a reality TV star, a former Irish Republican Army warlord and the country's top gay-rights crusader.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Voters are picking Ireland's next president Thursday from a crowded field of seven candidates, among them a reality TV star, a former Irish Republican Army warlord and the country's top gay-rights crusader.

About 3.2 million Irish citizens are eligible to vote for a successor to President Mary McAleese, Ireland's popular head of state for the past 14 years.

The president has no government powers but is Ireland's senior ambassador and, under McAleese's stewardship, has promoted reconciliation with Britain and the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland.

Ballot counting will start Friday but a winner is unlikely to be declared until Saturday because of Ireland's complex election system. It allows voters to rate candidates in order of preference, and means ballots must be counted several times. That system also makes forecasting a winner treacherous.

All recent opinion polls have favored Sean Gallagher, a 49-year-old entrepreneur who gained fame as a judge of business talent on an Irish reality TV show, "Dragon's Den." The political novice has promised voters that as president he could help get debt-struck, high-unemployment Ireland back to work, too.

But Gallagher's bid suffered untold damage when he flubbed the campaign's final TV debate and left the impression that he was a "bagman" — a collector of undisclosed and potentially corrupt donations — for Ireland's most ethically challenged party, Fianna Fail.

Voters furious at Ireland's international bailout decimated Fianna Fail in February parliamentary elections, a defeat so overwhelming that Fianna Fail hasn't even fielded a presidential candidate. Gallagher is running as an independent after resigning from Fianna Fail's executive in January.

Gallagher has softpedaled his Fianna Fail loyalties and insisted, under questioning from journalists and political opponents, that he encouraged only a few personal friends to donate to his former party.

His story was forced to change Monday after a rival candidate, former IRA chief Martin McGuinness, ambushed him at the last debate.

McGuinness announced he'd just talked to one businessman who had told how Gallagher personally solicited him, then collected a euro5,000 ($6,950) check in person. That businessman, a convicted fuel smuggler, later issued a statement through lawyers confirming the story and details of the donation.

Caught off guard, Gallagher conceded he might have collected "an envelope" from the man. Audience members gasped, and Gallagher has never come off the defensive since.

The biggest beneficiary of Gallagher's 11th-hour troubles could be Michael D. Higgins, an elfish 70-year-old lawmaker and former Cabinet minister renowned as a champion of arts, literature and left-wing human rights causes.

All opinion polls taken before Monday's debate rated Gallagher first and Higgins second. No polls have been taken since Gallagher's gaffe.

Running third was Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, whose campaign has been dominated by unrelenting media questioning of his role in orchestrating IRA violence.

McGuinness has insisted he quit the IRA in 1974 to become a fulltime peacemaker. That claim is at odds with histories of the Northern Ireland conflict identifying the 61-year-old as a top IRA figure until the outlawed group itself went out of business in 2005.

McGuinness' low point on the campaign trail came when the son of an IRA victim confronted him face to face. The son accused McGuinness of shielding his father's killers from justice. When McGuinness denied knowing anything about it, the man called him a liar. Elsewhere, other IRA victims' families accused McGuinness of direct involvement in the deaths of their loved ones, which he also denied.

The campaign's initial front-runner, Sen. David Norris, a former Trinity College professor and authority on the writings of James Joyce, has languished in fourth place in recent polls with support confined largely to Dublin.

Renowned for his wit and theatrical charm, Norris rose to national prominence by leading a decade-long legal fight that forced Ireland to decriminalize homosexuality in 1993. But his candidature has never recovered from a revelation that he wrote letters seeking clemency in Israel for his former Palestinian partner, who faced prison after being convicted of raping a 15-year-old boy.

Stuck at the bottom of most polls is Dana Rosemary Scallon, a Catholic conservative who was Ireland's first winner of the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970. Her campaign was overshadowed by eccentric family disputes and her own claims that someone tried to assassinate her by slashing one of her car tires. Police insisted the tire ruptured on a highway because it was not properly inflated.

The government also is seeking public approval for two constitutional amendments in Thursday's voting. One proposed amendment would give lawmakers the power to cut judges' pay in line with wider budget-cutting moves. The other would grant Ireland's parliament the authority to mount fact-finding investigations.

Voters in the Dublin West constituency also are filling a parliamentary seat previously held by former Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, who died of cancer in June.