Michael D Higgins to become Ireland's next president

Poet, peace campaigner and football club president on course to win at least 40% of first preference vote for Irish Labour party

The poet, peace campaigner and president of Galway United football club Michael D Higgins is poised to become Ireland's next president after rivals conceded defeat in the most fractious campaign in the country's history.

The Irish Labour party candidate was on course to win at least 40% of the first preference vote. Of the first eight constituencies to declare, Higgins was leading in seven of them.

The 70-year-old enjoyed a late surge of support, putting him well ahead of the former frontrunner Seán Gallagher. Martin McGuinness, whose candidacy turned the spotlight on his past as the IRA's chief of staff and his role in many prominent atrocities during the Troubles, was almost certain to come third.

Leaders of other parties and rival candidates conceded on Friday afternoon that Higgins was on course to win the presidential contest. Micheál Martin, the leader of the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil, congratulated Higgins on his performance "which will see him elected the ninth president of Ireland". Martin added: "I have known Michael D Higgins for many years and he will make an excellent president and ambassador for Ireland."

Gallagher, a former star of Ireland's version of Dragons' Den, also paid tribute to Higgins. "He will have my full support as president and I sincerely thank him for a positive campaign. His slogan stated that he would be a president to be proud of and I believe he will be that president."

Gallagher's collapse in support was put down to an 11th-hour revelation that he acted as a "bag man" for the former dominant party of the Republic, Fianna Fáil. On the last live TV debate this week McGuinness revealed that Gallagher had asked for €5,000 (£4,400) from a businessman as a donation to Fianna Fáil. In return Gallagher promised him a photograph with the former taoiseach Brian Cowen. Gallagher's link with Fianna Fáil – which lost power in parliamentary elections this year – and his inability to explain his actions live on TV transformed the campaign. A poll this week revealed that 28% of voters switched support from Gallagher to Higgins following the programme.

Higgins was way ahead of his rivals in crucial battlegrounds such as Dublin. In Dublin Central the first preference count gave Higgins 44%, Gallagher 16.4% and McGuinness 16.1%. A similar pattern was expected across the rest of the capital.

Sinn Féin appeared to acknowledge the damage that his IRA legacy had inflicted on McGuinness's bid. He had hoped to achieve about 20% but may only get around 15% – the same as the party polled in February's general election.

The party president, Gerry Adams, said Sinn Féin would have to be "strategic" and "mindful" of the genuine hurt of families caught up in the IRA's violence. McGuinness was continually ambushed during the campaign by families of Irish soldiers and members of the Garda Síochána killed in the Troubles. It is not known whether McGuinness will return to the Stormont regional government in Belfast as Northern Ireland's deputy first minister.

The main party in the current government, Fine Gael, had a disastrous election. In Roscommon, the early morning tallies reported that in some ballot boxes there were only four votes for its candidate, the Euro MEP Gay Mitchell. The party also appeared likely to suffer another loss in the Dublin West byelection, caused by the death of Ireland's former finance minister Brian Lenihan. The Irish Labour party appeared poised to win the seat.


Henry McDonald in Dublin

The GuardianTramp

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