Ireland re-elects Michael Higgins as president

Higgins wins 55.8 percent of the vote to secure second term, while exit polls show blasphemy law set to be dumped.

    Ireland's President Michael Higgins handsomely won a second term [Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]
    Ireland's President Michael Higgins handsomely won a second term [Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]

    Ireland has re-elected Michael Higgins as president for a second seven-year term.

    The 77-year old received 55.8 percent of the vote in Friday's election, winning in every constituency, news agencies reported on Saturday.

    "The presidency belongs not only to any one person but to the people of Ireland," Higgins said after arriving at Dublin Castle with his wife, Sabina. "I will be a president for all the people, for those who voted for me and those who did not."

    The presidency is largely a symbolic role and does not allow the president to get involved in daily politics, which is the responsibility of the Taoiseach - or Prime Minister - Leo Varadkar.

    Varadkar congratulated Higgins in a statement on Twitter, following an exit poll from Irish broadcaster RTE, which suggested the 77-year-old had won handsomely.

    Varadkar's Fine Gael party rules in coalition with Fianna Fail, of which Higgins is a member.

    Higgins, who has held the role since 2011, was the first incumbent president to face a challenge for a second term in 50 years.

    Voters also look set to remove the crime of blasphemy from Ireland's constitution in a referendum held alongside the election.

    Exit polls and early results suggested the measure had been backed by more than two-thirds of voters, Reuters news agency reported.

    The Irish constitution currently states that publishing or uttering "blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence, which shall be punishable in accordance with law," with those found guilty facing a fine of 25,000 euros ( roughly $28,600).

    Unlike Ireland's recent constitutional referendums on same-sex marriage in 2015 and liberalising abortion in May 2018, the vote on blasphemy has not inspired strong feelings in the country.

    Many were seemingly unaware of the legislation until a complaint was lodged with police over comments made by the British comedian Stephen Fry in a 2015 television interview.

    The last prosecution for blasphemy was in 1855, when Ireland was under British control, with the most recent successful conviction dating back to 1703.

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    Unlike the ballot on abortion, the blasphemy vote had no official campaign groups. However, some organisations have publicly expressed their views, including both the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland, who both said the blasphemy laws are "obsolete".

    Varadkar, who is considered to be a liberalising force in the traditionally conservative country, was in favour of a change to the law.

    "We've already allowed for marriage equality, given women the right to choose [on abortion], and this is the next step," he said in a video message before the vote.

    SOURCE: News agencies