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Can a wave of anger carry Gerry Adams into power?

Fed up with austerity measures, the Irish are abandoning Fianna Fail after decades in power

The body language of those meeting politicians on the stump in the border town of Dundalk tells much about the state of Irish politics in the run-up to the general election on 25 February.

At the weekend, Gerry Adams cruised confidently through the streets and malls in his campaign to win a seat in the Irish parliament and a breakthrough for his Sinn Fein party. He is instantly recognised: most of the young people taking leaflets from him gave big shy smiles. When he moved on they goggled and giggled to each other: they had just met a celebrity of sorts, something to tell their friends and family about.

There is no sign that Sinn Fein's association with the violence of the IRA will cost votes, even though there have been allegations that Mr Adams was involved in a particularly awful killing in the constituency in the 1970s.

"It comes up with the media," he said, "but it hasn't come up with citizens. One guy said he wouldn't shake hands with me, that's the only time it has come up." The general sense is that was then, this is now.

He is shifting his power base from Belfast to Co Louth, where everyone expects he will win a seat. They also expect his party will at least double its present total of five seats in the Dail, the Irish parliament.

While his party is on the way up, Fianna Fail, the party of power for many decades, is very definitely on the way down and possibly even on the way out. Opinion polls suggest it is destined for the wilderness, losing more than half of its seats.

When Fianna Fail candidate Declan Breathnach knocked on doors in Dundalk's southern suburbs he met several Fianna Fail supporters, all of whom were resigned to opposition. Mr Breathnach readily conceded to one Fianna Fail woman: "There's a recognition that mistakes were made." Asked if she will vote for the party again there is a long pause before she answers: "Certainly. I'm sure the same mistakes won't be made again."

Mr Breathnach said: "There is a core Fianna Fail vote which will come out, then there's a disgruntled Fianna Fail vote which says, 'never again'. I'm trying to win them back."

His problem is that his party, the greatest vote-harvesting machine in 20th-century Irish politics, has degenerated into an absolutely toxic brand. The Republic is in dire economic straits, and most hold Fianna Fail to blame.

This was evident during Mr Breathnach's canvass, perhaps helping explain why he introduced himself by name only, without mentioning his party. The people he spoke to, mostly women, were generally polite. But some gave him a thin discouraging smile or rolled their eyes.

When he pressed one woman on her feelings she shook her head and told him: "You wouldn't want to hear. You wouldn't be able to deal with my issues, not with the ones I've got with Fianna Fail."

Like most of Ireland, Dundalk for years did spectacularly well. But the once brisk and bustling town now features many shuttered shops, and shopping malls with noticeably few customers for a Saturday afternoon. Politicians in general are held in conspicuously low esteem, for there is a strong, and bitter, sense that they have let down the country. Unemployment is high, emigration is back and deep cuts and new taxes have severely depleted wage packets and benefits.

With the country deeply in debt, the economic elation of the Celtic Tiger years has been replaced by painful austerity. An emergency bail-out has been provided by the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF), but it is so gigantic that it will take decades to pay off.

According to Mr Adams: "There are three main emotions going about. Some you feel could just explode. There are others whose heads are down: in our offices grown men have broken down because of the hit they're taking. Then there are others who definitely want a change, they want it sorted out."

In the town's main street, Mr Adams encountered one man who really did seem in danger of detonating. He was a large, bearded, furious countryman whose son had lost his house. What had he said? "I told him I wasn't voting for anybody, which I'm not. There's none of them fit to run a fucking dog show."

The next government is likely to be a coalition of two major parties, the right-leaning Fine Gael and the leftist Labour party. In the campaign they are currently sparring over how they might bring about some re-negotiation of the EU-IMF deal.

The two parties have differences which are important but not crucial, so the widespread assumption is that their present hostilities will end on election day, and they will then get down to negotiations about forming a government.

That's how it is usually done in Dublin, with campaign combat leading on to post-election partnership. A new administration will seek to renegotiate parts of the deal, though it seems unlikely they can succeed in altering its fundamentals. Mr Adams, by contrast, wants to sweep the whole deal away. The larger parties, in his words, "are all in cahoots on the consensus for cuts and all agree with the EU-IMF loan. We are the only party to say clearly that the Irish taxpayer cannot afford this loan".

In fact, the eruption of anger against Fianna Fail will make for a uniquely unpredictable result. Many independents are also in the field and no one is sure how the Fianna Fail vote will scatter.

On the doorsteps, parties report that the issues raised most often are unemployment and how to deal with financial matters, both at a national and personal level.

Many who are in difficulties with mortgages fume at what politicians pay themselves, since some outgoing ministers are collecting packages of €300,000 (£251,000). There is anger that bankers are still doing well. Some are taking refuge in bitter humour: Dundalk town hall is staging Malice in Blunderland, "a musical comedy for the recession/election". Posters depict politicians, bankers and developers being boiled in a large pot.

The mood was summed up by Damien Doyle, a 42-year-old carpenter, a trade which did very well during the building boom. "I reckon Fianna Fail is going to be wiped out," he said. "We have houses but what you're making now is not even paying your mortgage. You're scraping, you've no lifestyle at all. Everything's going up. The bank put up their mortgages 1 per cent last week – that's at least another €100 a month. Petrol has gone up so much we can't drive the kids to school anymore, they have to go on the bus.

"We used to go to Spain for holidays but we won't be doing that anymore. And people are expecting you to do jobs for nearly nothing – the work's not there. There's times I make about €50 a week, that's how bad it is."

When Prime Minister Brian Cowen visited Dundalk last week students staged a protest, displaying the names of countries they will be emigrating to, such as Australia, Canada and Britain.

According to James Carr, president of the students' union at Dundalk Institute of Technology: "A lot of people have gone, mostly to Australia. They feel there's no other option at the moment."

Many are about to take grim satisfaction in punishing Fianna Fail, but few think any new government will bring about dramatic improvement. Most believe things are destined to get worse before they get better, especially those Australia-bound young people who think there is little point in voting, or even staying in Ireland.