|With a history of human rights activism, Higgins has voiced opposition to Israel's Gaza blockade [EPA]
Irish electoral officials have announced that veteran human rights activist and poet Michael Higgins has won the presidential election with a total of 56.8 per cent of the votes.
Higgins, 70, a critic of Israel's Gaza blockade and a mainstay of human rights demonstrations for decades, will become the country's ninth president.
Saturday's result capped a two-day count of ballots to determine who would succeed Mary McAleese as the country's ceremonial head of state.
"[Higgins] will make a fine president and I wish him well for his seven years in the Aras"
- Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland deputy first minister
Higgins' victory was assured after partial results Friday gave him an unassailable lead over six other candidates who all conceded defeat, including his main rival Sean Gallagher, a reality TV judge.
"I've called Michael Higgins to congratulate him on his performance and his success in this election," Gallagher said in a statement on Friday.
"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."
Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, the former IRA paramilitary commander who is now the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, received 13 per cent, the third most votes of the candidates.
The outcome represents a turnaround for former arts minister Higgins, who was trailing far behind Gallagher in opinion polls going into the final week of campaigning.
But Gallagher saw his lead melt away after McGuinness accused him of collecting a $7,000 donation from a convicted criminal in a live televised debate on Monday.
History of activism
Gallagher denied having handled it and accused McGuinness of launching a "political assassination" attempt, but the damage was done.
McGuinness also sent his congratulations to Higgins, who will get the keys to the Aras an Uachtarain, the president's smart official residence in Dublin's Phoenix Park.
"He will make a fine president and I wish him well for his seven years in the Aras," McGuinness said.
Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore, the Labour leader, said Higgins had attracted "much greater" support than the party ever got.
"That is a great tribute to him, all the work he has done down the years," he said.
The president is responsible for representing the country, receiving foreign heads of state and making visits abroad to promote Irish interests and strengthen links with the large global diaspora.
Higgins will succeed Belfast-born McAleese, who has served the maximum two seven-year terms as the figurehead of the republic which required an $120bn international bailout last year.
The new president is a veteran intellectual who has written two volumes of poetry and who first entered parliament in 1973.