Sinn Fein set for surprise breakthrough in Irish poll

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The Independent Online

Sinn Fein this week stands on the verge of becoming a player in the internal politics of the Irish Republic, with predictions that it could win up to seven seats in Friday's general election. Although seven Dail seats would represent a remarkable breakthrough for a party that now has only one, most observers think the party will increase its representation to at least three.

It is also in with a real chance of picking up other seats in a country disillusioned with more conventional political parties because of countless corruption scandals.

A strong performance would send tremors through the Northern Ireland peace process, since Unionists will be alarmed at Sinn Fein wielding power on both sides of the border. In the north, Sinn Fein has already drawn marginally ahead of the SDLP, the more moderate nationalist party. Success in the south would strengthen the existing sense that republicans have the wind in their sails.

The main parties in the Republic have ruled out coalition with Sinn Fein, arguing that while the party has moved into the democratic processes it retains links with an illegal army, the IRA. For years Sinn Fein has had only limited support in the south, partly because voters were alienated by IRA violence and partly because they expect southern politicians to improve services such as roads and health.

The ending of the IRA's military campaign has now made many southerners much less inhibited about expressing support for republicanism. This is evident in the warm response to northern republican leaders such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness when they go south to campaign.

Non-republicans say the IRA should have called off its violent campaign much earlier, but many in the south believe Mr Adams deserves credit as an architect of the peace process.

Sinn Fein has also painstakingly built up a reputation in constituencies as a party that can produce results on mundane matters such as pothole and housing repairs.

There is no attempt to play down its militant past, but local issues receive priority. Thus while the convicted gunrunner Martin Ferris is poised to take a Sinn Fein seat in North Kerry, he freely admits that "the issues on the doorstep are health, crime, drugs, housing, jobs, roads and rail".

He told The Independent: "You have a considerable number of people who are interested in the national question but, if you're talking about the majority of people, it's everyday issues that are the big problem."

Sinn Fein also stands to gain from the strong strain of anti-establishment feeling in southern Irish politics. The country tends to elect a fair number of independent candidates as well as members of smaller parties.

It also has a substantial number of young voters alienated from the bigger parties, particular in inner-city areas.The party's republicanism is still undiluted, but, alongside it, Sinn Fein has successfully fostered the politics of the pothole.