Voters across Ireland go to the polls today to elect the country’s ninth president.
A record seven candidates have been vying for support, with the campaign marked by bitter claim and counter-claim involving leading contender Sean Gallagher in the final 72 hours.
The independent candidate, who was a political fundraiser for the Fianna Fail party in 2008, has been attacked over claims he personally requested and collected a €5,000 cheque from a businessman for a meet-and-greet with then taoiseach Brian Cowen.
He has also been under pressure over financial transactions in his businesses and despite him giving some explanations confusion remains over a directors’ loan.
Other contenders are Labour Party veteran Michael D Higgins, thrown in as odds-on favourite today, and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, who resigned as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister to run and led the charge against Mr Gallagher at the last live debate on Monday.
Next on the bookies list are Gay Mitchell of the Government Fine Gael party — but who has failed to garner support from his own political grassroots — and Senator David Norris, an independent, a former Trinity College, Dublin professor and a Joycean scholar.
Former head of the Special Olympics in Ireland Mary Davis, who brought the world games to Croke Park in Dublin in 2003, and former Eurovision winner Dana Rosemary Scallon, a successful Christian singer in the US and a one-time eurosceptic MEP are expected to run towards the bottom of the poll.
About 3.1 million people are eligible to vote in the single transferable vote system, where the successful candidate needs 50 per cent of the vote plus one.
Ireland’s ninth president will follow the respected 14-year two-terms held by Mary McAleese. She leaves office on November 10 after a remarkable tenure marked by her “Building Bridges” theme and work on the peace process in Northern Ireland.
The President’s residence, Áras an Uachtaráin in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, was also opened to more guests and visitors than ever before.
Counting of ballots begins on Friday at 9am in 43 constituencies across the country with results relayed to a central database in Dublin Castle.
Early figures from the first counts from individual constituencies can be expected in the evening, with indications of how the poll will pan out later that night.
However, if the pattern of opinion polls in the final week is to be believed no candidate is likely to be within 10 per cent of the 50 per cent plus one majority. And with seven candidates the result may only be decided certainly after a second count and possibly going down to a third or fourth.
The electorate is also being asked to vote on two referendums to make alterations to the Irish constitution.
One is on a proposal to beef up the powers of parliamentary committees in holding inquiries into matters of public interest, while the other would allow the government to reduce the pay of judges.
Also, in west Dublin, voting takes place to fill the seat of the late former finance minister Brian Lenihan.
:: Higgins tops expat poll for President
Michael D Higgins has won by a landslide in an online presidential election among 2,500 Irish emigrants.
The Labour candidate received 40 per cent of first preference votes with independent Senator David Norris coming in second at 24 per cent in a count by the Ballotbox.ie website.
However, frontrunner Sean Gallagher finished fourth with 10 per cent, eight points behind Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness in third place at 18 per cent.
Irish emigrants from over 97 countries were polled by Ballotbox.ie, a site founded by recent Irish emigrants to highlight the disenfranchisement to Irish people once they leave the State.
Britain, United States, Canada, Germany and Australia were the dominant countries from which votes were received while predominant home constituencies were in Dublin and Cork.
Other votes came from from Estonia, Malawi, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Voting took place over six days and closed today, with IP technology used to block voters in Ireland and passport information used to discourage non-Irish voters.
Registering less than 10 per cent between them were Fine Gael candidate Gay Mitchell , independent Mary Davis and independent Dana Rosemary Scallon.