Mainstream Irish parties fear strong gains by Sinn Fein in summer poll

A sustained surge of support for Sinn Fein in the Republic of Ireland has brought a wave of denunciations from other parties, some of them describing the republicans as a threat to Irish democracy.

Mainstream Dublin politicians have become increasingly worried as Sinn Fein's support has steadily mounted in opinion polls, standing now at a new high of 8 per cent.

With a general election due this summer, most observers forecast that Sinn Fein, which at the moment holds only one of the Dail's 166 seats, could return with between four and eight representatives. Polls indicate strong support among younger voters.

Garret FitzGerald, the former taoiseach, warned at the weekend: "The Sinn Fein/IRA propaganda campaign, claiming credit as peaceniks for having decided to stop killing people, has clearly been particularly successful with some younger voters who have no memory of the 30-year murder campaign."

Although its involvement in a coalition government looks unlikely, a strong showing by Sinn Fein could leave it well-placed for involvement at the highest level of Dublin political negotiations.

According to a senior Dublin journalist: "If they win five seats we're in trouble – they'll be too big, too strong, they'll have to be taken too much into account. People are going to be looking over their shoulders at them."

The Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, who predicts that his party's advances will be "the story of this election," said recently: "Do you think the taoiseach-to-be will not be sounding out the team of Sinn Fein TDs?"

Although he himself is not contesting the election, Mr Adams has emerged as a major asset for his party. Opinion polls rank him as the second most popular party leader in the Republic, behind only the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

Furthermore, his dissatisfaction rating is lower than that of any of the major leaders, indicating that Sinn Fein's historical association with IRA violence is proving no bar to increasing popularity.

One republican source said: "In every town people come up to him. Hundreds turn up at his meetings. Even people who wouldn't vote for him do have a regard for him."

Mr Adams is now spending almost half of his time in the Republic, with other prominent Sinn Fein figures such as Martin McGuinness also campaigning there.

The party's increasing appeal to voters is not primarily based on its northern record. It has built strong party machines in a number of constituencies in Dublin and in border areas, which have a reputation for delivering on local issues.

It has also benefited greatly from voter disillusion with the political classes in the wake of revelations of financial sleaze on a grand scale. One government backbencher is in prison for non-cooperation with an official tribunal of inquiry.

The largest party, Fianna Fail, has said insuperable constitutional difficulties prevent Sinn Fein's involvement in a coalition. It declared that Sinn Fein would have to "resolve its relationship with the IRA before becoming part of a sovereign Irish government".

The prospect of Sinn Fein gains has led to impassioned warnings from a number of senior politicians.

Dick Spring, a former deputy prime minister whose party's seat is one of those targeted by Sinn Fein, alleged that republicans were "up to their necks in peddling drugs", a claim which neither the British nor Irish government believes.

Desmond O'Malley, a former justice minister and respected elder statesman, said that while some politicians were corrupt, "at least their hands are covered only in sleaze, not blood". He added: "The republican movement has contempt for our police force and our army and for our state itself."

Last week, the Attorney General, Michael McDowell, described Sinn Fein as "a dagger at the throat of social justice". He declared: "Any person or party who owes a loyalty to the IRA and its Army Council, to its claimed right to inflict murder and torture, simply has no business in the Dail."

Most of the media strongly opposes the idea of any government relying even informally on Sinn Fein support. The Irish Times described this as "an appalling and unacceptable vista".

However, a detailed opinion poll in one Dublin constituency last week found that 46 per cent supported the idea of Sinn Fein ministers in cabinet.

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