Nicola Anderson: Statesmanlike words of Higgins are a tough act for Casey to follow

After Michael D Higgins’s noble and generous speech, Peter Casey had to deliver one of his own – and with a grimace, he acknowledged his misfortune.

“Gosh, I hate following a great orator,” he said, adding: “One of the best.”

“In the words of Elizabeth Taylor to her seventh husband, ‘I won’t be keeping you long,'” he quipped limply.

To Mr Casey’s credit, he did indeed keep it short.

How to analyse this apparent tale of two Irelands that has emerged during the campaign?

Ireland reached its own peculiar, unsatisfactory middle ground, where we ‘kept the poet’ but gave a hearty nod to the mouthy johnny-come-lately, who had got a section of the nation all fired up.

Mr Casey had said earlier at the Convention Centre that he was “disappointed” by his result because he had thought that he could win.

He might run again next time – but added that this could be a problem because “I could be Taoiseach by then”.

Mr Casey’s performance, however, shrank to nothing in the wake of that from the 77-year-old President – so popular that he has been immortalised in innumerable handknit tea cosies and won the largest majority in the history of the State, eclipsing even de Valera in his prime.

As the ballot boxes opened at 9am on Saturday, there were no surprises concealed in the neatly folded papers that came tumbling out.

Like other key moments in Irish life, it had already “happened on ‘The Late Late Show’ – the exit polls stealing the thunder of the day of the count.

This had to be one of the most eclectic collections of candidates ever to grace a ballot paper.

And yet as they lined up on stage at Dublin Castle to concede defeat and congratulate the re-elected President, they had an undeniable dignity and courage, having put their characters, reputation and money on the line.

Before the President was announced, Sabina gave her husband a loving squeeze that spoke volumes of their joy to be back as the First Couple.

They had arrived, beaming with happiness, at Dublin Castle, walking in the doors on the dot of 7.30pm to cheers.

“I want to acknowledge the offer of public service that my fellow candidates have made in standing for this important role,” the President said. The five of them nodded gravely, even gratefully, in response.

It was perhaps the speech of his long and fruitful career – warm, impassioned, hard-hitting, yes – but also full of poignant hope.

“Words matter. Words can hurt. Words can heal. Words can empower. Words can divide,” the President warned.

A real Republic is a Republic of equality, he said. It was easy to read into his words some very clear digs at Mr Casey’s rhetoric – but the President’s words spoke to us all.

And there was yet another speech – from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who was keen to get a piece of the action.

The Higgins vote was the highest ever achieved by any candidate in the history of the Irish State, he revealed, as supporters whooped loudly.

Outside, as we waited for the Taoiseach and the Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan to say a few words on the blasphemy referendum, an American tourist wandered over to see what all the fuss was about.

Intrigued, she asked what this President of ours was like.

“Warm, very popular and an intellectual” was one description.

“Oh, just like our President,” she quipped with irony.

And then this strangest of elections was over – bar the official final tally.

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