Newsmaker: Campaigner turned poet set to be Irish president

DUBLIN Sat Oct 29, 2011 12:05am BST

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DUBLIN (Reuters) - Michael D. Higgins, set to clinch victory on Saturday in Ireland's presidential election, is an intellectual career politician with a bohemian streak who made his name as a campaigner for human rights.

He argued for the legalisation of contraception and divorce in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Ireland of the 1970s, and has been a mainstay of human rights demonstrations in recent decades, repeatedly describing the U.S. intervention in Iraq and the Israeli blockade of Gaza as illegal.

As minister of culture and the arts in the 1990s, Higgins built up an image of a statesman above the fray of party politics. A fluent Gaelic speaker, he set up a Gaelic-language television channel and re-established a board promoting Irish films.

His victory will be a relief for his centre-left Labour party, boosting hopes that they can maintain their support even while backing a deeply unpopular austerity programme as the junior partner in a coalition government.

At 70, Higgins was the oldest of the seven candidates in the election, and his long political experience stood him in good stead during a grubby campaign full of personal mud-slinging.

Admired by his fans for his oratory and poetry, but dismissed by others as long-winded and pretentious, he kept a relatively low profile during a long stream of debates, leaving his rivals to attack each other.

Usually referred to as "Michael D," Higgins also kept his bohemian leanings and left-wing rhetoric in check for the campaign, donning a conventional suit and tie.

A frontrunner from the start, Higgins was praised for helping the independent gay rights campaigner David Norris enter the race by calling on Labour councillors to support Norris's bid despite a controversy about his opinions on underage sex.

Higgins's own admission that he had smoked marijuana -- pointedly noting that he had inhaled -- barely raised an eyebrow, and only reinforced the popularity that his championing of liberal causes has brought him among middle-class and young voters.

Higgins, a father of four, cuts a distinctive figure with his balding head crowned by wispy white hair.

He is also small, a fact that inspired one congratulatory tweet on Friday suggesting that the diminutive French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who wears high heels to look taller, would be glad of Higgins's win.

"HUGE BOOST to Franco-Irish relations," it read. "Sarkozy will want President Michael D. Higgins standing beside him EVERYWHERE."

(Editing by Carmel Crimmins)

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