Sinn Fein expects to make gains in Ireland's vote

Fianna Fail is expected to prevail today, but Sinn Fein's long-term strategy is paying off.

More than Ireland's future governance hangs in the balance today, as 3.5 million voters go to the polls.

Although it is widely accepted here that Prime Minister Bertie Ahern's party, Fianna Fail, will be re-elected, there's a much more fascinating drama unfolding.

Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), is running more candidates than it has in the past, and hopes to capitalize on the high profile, nationally and internationally, of leadership figures like Gerry Adams, the party president.

Since its participation in the peace process here eight years ago, Sinn Fein has tried to reform its image as a serious political party with democratic credentials, rather than just a group of former terrorists who fought the British for Irish unity.

Sinn Fein (Ourselves Alone) currently has four seats in the British Parliament, but only one in the Irish parliament, an embarrassing tally for a party so committed to a united Irish state. Sinn Fein could triple its seats in the Dail (the Irish parliament) from one to three, or even more.

The results will be studied closely, both at home and abroad, for signs that Sinn Fein's strategy is bearing fruit, giving it increased political influence on both sides of the border.

Brian Feeny, author of the recently published "Sinn Fein: A Hundred Turbulent Years," says this election is the culmination of a strategy going back 20 years.

In 1982, he says, "Sinn Fein were heavily defeated, gaining only 2 percent of the poll, partly because the violence was still raging up north. They then retired, licking their wounds, to begin a rethink. That eventually led to the 1994 cease-fires."

"Sinn Fein are now presenting themselves to the southern electorate as the only all-Ireland party, a deliberate challenge to Fianna Fail," he says. "In 10 years, it hopes to have well over 20 seats in the 166-seat Dail, with the prospect of ministers in both jurisdictions meeting each other across the border."

Pre-election opinion polls show Sinn Fein is finding support particularly among younger voters, disillusioned with allegations of corruption in Irish political life, and among the long-term unemployed who feel neglected by the mainstream parties.

Ironically, the problems in Northern Ireland have not been a major issue in the election campaign. Although Sinn Fein doesn't hide its desire for a united state, far more prominence is given to more mundane issues, like charges recently imposed for collecting garbage. Its left-wing manifesto promises to spend more tax-payers' money on health, childcare, education, and social welfare payments.

"A united Ireland might be popular in a small number of constituencies, such as those along the border with Northern Ireland," says Michael Marsh, political science professor at Trinity University in Dublin. But they claim to be the "real voice of working people, a voice which the other parties overlook."

Sinn Fein has its problems, however, not least of which is that, 80 years after Ireland was divided, southern voters care little about Northern Ireland's problems and find its sectarianism and violence a turn-off.

Fianna Fail (Soldiers of Destiny), the Republic of Ireland's largest, centrist political party, has ruled out sharing power in a coalition government with Sinn Fein while the IRA continues to exist as a paramilitary force.

But if Fianna Fail fails to gain an overall majority, it would be forced to choose between going into a coalition with one of its rivals, or relying on the tacit support of Sinn Fein.

Either way, the arrival of Sinn Fein as a factor in the southern landscape shifts the fulcrum of political debate and will be another step in its leadership's bid to unite Ireland, if not constitutionally, then politically.

The party has not been without opposition, however. Among the most vehemently opposed has been the Labour Party leader, Ruairi Quinn, who says Sinn Fein is fascist and compares it to Serbian nationalists and the French right-winger, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Another leading opponent is the outgoing attorney general, Michael McDowell, who is running for the right-of-centre Progressive Democrats.

He says Sinn Fein is not a truly democratic party and is unfit for government.

Sinn Fein's links with the IRA also have given its opponents plenty to criticize. Recently, police in Northern Ireland accused the IRA of stealing intelligence documents from a top-secret Belfast security base.

One of Sinn Fein's high-profile candidates, Martin Ferris, typifies the difficulties it faces. An alleged member of the IRA's ruling "Army Council," he was imprisoned for 10 years for running guns from the US in the 1980s.

More recently he has been accused of vigilantism in a local campaign against small-time crooks – a claim he denies. Local opinion polls predict that Mr. Ferris will top the poll when votes are counted and could even oust the former Labour Party leader, Dick Spring, from his seat.

Whatever the detailed result – the upstart newcomer is determined to make its mark.

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