DUBLIN — The Irish Republican Army's political wing, Sinn Fein, has moved into center stage in Ireland's parliament after winning its first seat in 15 years in elections held this weekend.
Caoimhgin O Caolain will be the first Sinn Fein deputy to sit in the southern parliament since the Irish civil war of 1922-23, when defeated IRA extremists refused to recognize the partition of Ireland and the newly created southern Irish state. With outgoing Prime Minister John Bruton's three-party coalition failing to hold its slim majority, he now finds himself one of a number of independent or minority party deputies who will hold the balance of power in a hung Dail (parliament).
Before the election, Sinn Fein said that any of its successful candidates would support a premiership bid by Bertie Ahern, leader of the center-right Fianna Fail party. Traditionally more pro-republican than Mr. Bruton's equally conservative Fine Gael party, Fianna Fail is also likely to receive the support of at least two other pro-republican independent deputies elected over the weekend.
Their two votes, coupled with Fianna Fail's 77 seats and the four seats won by Fianna Fail's coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats, would give Mr. Ahern 83 votes, the bare majority he needs to become Taoiseach (prime minister).
The mathematics is important for another reason: For all of Fianna Fail's professed republicanism, Ahern has no desire to be dependent on Sinn Fein for his government's survival. Such a dependence would greatly reduce the government's credibility and room to maneuver in negotiations over the Northern Ireland peace process.
Ahern has said the top priority of any government he led would be to maintain the Northern Ireland peace process, following the tradition of Albert Reynolds, his predecessor as Fianna Fail leader, who helped to initiate the process.
Bruton's "rainbow coalition" of right- and left-wing parties took a mauling from the traditionally fickle electorate, despite having presided over three years of sustained economic growth that led to Ireland being dubbed "the Celtic tiger."
A spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister Dick Spring's center-left Labour Party, which lost nearly half its seats, said he believed the Irish left should make no attempt to reenter government and should use a spell in opposition to regroup and redefine its goals.
Bruton can salvage from his government's defeat the knowledge that his own Fine Gael party reversed a long electoral decline by winning up to 10 seats more than in 1992. His party leadership is secure, and some commentators are predicting that it might not be long before he has another chance to regain the office of prime minister.
In its bid to take power, the populist Fianna Fail party fought the election on a joint ticket with the right-wing Progressive Democrat (PD) party, which is strongly hostile to the republican movement in Northern Ireland. Ahern's political opponents say that a minority administration dependent on the PDs on the one hand and Sinn Fein and its sympathizers on the other would be put under intolerable strain by conflicting views on the Northern Ireland peace process.
Representatives of all the Republic's main political parties are expressing their hope that Sinn Fein's victory would lead the republican movement another step away from its campaign of violence. But skeptics point out that last month's British general election victories for Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness did not stop the IRA from attempting to mount a huge bomb attack in Belfast, dashing hopes for an early cease-fire.
Many Irish political analysts attribute Sinn Fein's rising popularity to its role in the 1994 cease-fire and peace process, which convinced many previously wary Irish voters that the republican movement, and its charismatic public leader Gerry Adams, were sincere in their desire for peace.