Sinn Fein is poised to gain party's first seats in Europe

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The Independent Online

Sinn Fein is in line to take two seats in the European elections, despite a wave of hostility towards the party in Irish political circles. Such a republican success would be another significant step in the remarkable electoral growth of the party. Already the largest nationalist grouping in the north, it also has a foothold of five seats in the Dail in Dublin.

Sinn Fein is in line to take two seats in the European elections, despite a wave of hostility towards the party in Irish political circles. Such a republican success would be another significant step in the remarkable electoral growth of the party. Already the largest nationalist grouping in the north, it also has a foothold of five seats in the Dail in Dublin.

Sinn Fein's two candidates considered likely to be elected are the former Assembly minister Bairbre de Brun, who is running in Northern Ireland, and a newcomer, Mary Lou McDonald, who is tipped to take a seat in Dublin.

The government in the Irish Republic, a coalition headed by Fianna Fail, is fighting to hold its support in the European contest and in the local council polls, to be held on the same day.

The government and other major parties are vulnerable to challenges from smaller groupings such as Sinn Fein. Much of the party's appeal lies in its anti-establishment stance and reputation for achieving results at grassroots level.

Its strong showing in opinion polls continues despite a wave of attacks on Sinn Fein and the IRA from major political figures, most notably from the Irish government. The Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, has mounted a barrage of assaults on the republican movement.

He has accused Sinn Fein of being completely subservient to the IRA, which he has described as "an organised criminal racket posing as an army". Mr McDowell called the IRA "a massive criminal organisation which kills, tortures and plunders", accusing Sinn Fein of "vomit-making, stomach-turning hypocrisy". Criticisms of republicans are commonplace in Ireland, but the minister has escalated these to new levels of political aggression. They have been echoed, though in a milder form, by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and other parties.

All this represents a shift from the previous sentiment that Sinn Fein should be treated with leniency because the party was involved in a delicate, and dangerous, transition from violence to democracy. Now the gloves appear to be off.

Sinn Fein has accused Mr McDowell of putting "personal ambition and narrow sectional interest" before the peace process, and of being "in fear and trepidation" of further republican political advances.

Opinions differ on whether the attacks on Sinn Fein arise from electoral worries or exasperation that the IRA is still involved in violence a decade after its 1994 ceasefire. The McDowell rhetoric appears to have caused less damage to Sinn Fein than the recent focus on the 1996 killing of a policeman in Co Limerick.

The Irish government rejects Sinn Fein claims that IRA members jailed for the killing qualify for early release. The issue seems to have cost Sinn Fein some middle-class support, especially in the Limerick area.

A republican victory in the north, which has three European seats, seems more assured than in the south, though a possible low turnout and other factors make both contests impossible to predict with confidence.

In Northern Ireland, John Hume and Ian Paisley, two political giants who held European seats for a quarter of a century, are stepping down.

Mr Paisley's Democratic Unionists are trying to hold the seat with the less well-known Jim Allister, and David Trimble's Ulster Unionists are hopeful of retaining their seat.

This means most interest focuses on whether Sinn Fein can take the third seat from the SDLP. The timing of the election means attempts to achieve a breakthrough in the peace process, which would lead to the restoration of the suspended Belfast Assembly, have been shelved until after the election results are in.

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