DUBLIN Michael D. Higgins, a former culture minister and part-time poet from Ireland's junior coalition party, was named president Saturday after comfortably beating a reality TV star and an ex-IRA commander to the mainly ceremonial role.
Higgins, 70, a critic of Israel's blockade of Gaza and a mainstay of human rights demonstrations for decades, was assured of victory Friday when all his rivals conceded defeat before the first counting of votes was completed.
The Labour candidate's win will 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.
However the government suffered a setback when one of two referendums it proposed -- to boost the power of parliamentary committees -- was rejected by voters, meaning Prime Minister Enda Kenny will not be able to fulfill his aim of hold a comprehensive inquiry into Ireland's banking crisis.
"The Irish people, of which I appreciate so much and take with such responsibility have given a very clear mandate on a very clear set of ideas," Higgins, admired as an eloquent orator, said in his victory speech.
"During a long campaign I saw and felt and feel the pain of the Irish people. I recognise the need for a reflection of those values and assumptions often carelessly taken that had brought us to such a sorry pass in social and economic terms."
Higgins, whose statesman-like poise stood him in good stead during a grubby campaign full of personal mud-slinging, won 40 percent of first preference votes putting him 11 percentage points clear of nearest rival, businessman Sean Gallagher.
McGuinness was in third place after the first round of counting with 14 percent, more than double Fine Gael's showing and an improvement on the record 10 percent of votes Sinn Fein secured in February's election.
Buoyed by public anger over an economic crisis that led to an EU/IMF bailout last year, Sinn Fein is trying to move into the political mainstream in the Republic of Ireland after already doing so in Northern Ireland where they share power.
Higgins's relatively low profile and steady campaign proved decisive though, particularly after independent candidate Gallagher failed to recover from a scandal that broke after the final opinion poll gave him a 15 point lead.
Establishing a final result in national polls in Ireland is a slow process due to a complicated electoral system and manual counting, and Higgins's election was only confirmed a day and a half after the first votes were counted.
The day's other votes showed that more than three quarters of the electorate voted in favour of allowing the government to cut the pay of judges but the referendum on parliamentary powers was narrowly defeated.
Kenny had said an inquiry into the country's banking crisis would be a priority if the referendum was passed, raising the prospect that former prime ministers and bank chiefs could be ordered to come before parliament.
Members of parliament have tried in vein to haul the former heads of failed lenders Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide before committees but could not legally compel them to appear, a power the referendum would have granted them.
However eight former attorney generals called for a no vote last week, arguing that the proposals seriously weakened the rights of citizens to their good name.
The failure to pass referendums has been politically damaging in the past - the last administration was particularly hurt when voters rejected the first European Union Lisbon reform treaty three and a half years ago.
Higgins' Labour party did win a 38th parliamentary seat in Dublin late Friday though, becoming the first ruling party to win a by-election since 1982 and reinforcing the government's already large lower-house majority.
(Editing by Sophie Hares)
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