Businessman extends lead in Irish presidential race

DUBLIN Mon Oct 24, 2011 5:59am EDT

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DUBLIN (Reuters) - A businessman who shot to fame on a reality TV show has extended his lead in the race for Ireland's presidency, according to a poll on Monday that indicated the government's two candidates would be soundly beaten.

Sean Gallagher, an independent who has pledged to use the largely ceremonial post to attract investment in Ireland, has the 40 percent support before Thursday's vote, according to the IPSOS MRBI poll published in the Irish Times on Monday.

He was 15 points ahead of Michael D. Higgins of the junior governing party Labour, the widest lead recorded for Gallagher in any major poll.

Higgins, a poet and former minister for culture, was the clear favorite until last week, giving the government a chance to save face in an election which has seen the candidate of the ruling Fine Gael party slump out of contention.

Martin McGuinness, a former commander in guerrilla group the Irish Republican Army (IRA), was in third place, on 15 percent.

David Norris, a gay rights campaigner and former presidential frontrunner, has been beset by scandals and was on 8 percent, while Fine Gael's Gay Mitchell was on 6 percent.

While the role is chiefly ceremonial, Ireland's president has the right to refer legislation to the Supreme Court.

Gallagher, who made his name supplying technology and cabling to new homes during Ireland's ill-fated housing boom, became famous when he appeared on Dragon's Den, a television show in which budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to business people in the hope of winning funding from them.

He has benefited from avoiding much of the mud-slinging in the contest.

His biggest electoral weakness is seen as his former membership of the center-right Fianna Fail party, blamed by voters for presiding over the country's economic collapse.

(Reporting by Conor Humphries; editing by Elizabeth Piper)

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