Polls suggest Sinn Fein has a chance of gaining enough seats in Parliament to become one of the country’s three biggest parties.
DUBLIN — Sean Crowe, a member of the Irish Parliament, has been around long enough to remember how tough it was to attract votes when his party, Sinn Fein, was known only as the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as it waged a guerrilla campaign against Britain in Northern Ireland, only an hour’s drive from his Dublin constituency.
Yet after decades in which Sinn Fein was defined almost exclusively by its place in the often-violent conflict over reuniting Ireland, it appears to be on the cusp of rebranding itself as a more mainstream party in Ireland — and even to emerge as one of the primary voices of the left-leaning opposition.
Sinn Fein continues to be led by Gerry Adams, 67, who has been the party’s president since 1983 and has always been closely linked to the IRA even though he has denied being a member. Adams, who won a seat in the Irish Parliament in 2011, has sought to recast the party as one opposed to the austerity policies that have dominated Irish life since the financial crisis of 2009, and as a populist alternative to the dominant parties of the center right and center left.
Polls suggest Sinn Fein has a chance in Friday’s election of gaining enough seats in Parliament to become one of the country’s three biggest parties, along with Fine Gael, the center-right party that leads the coalition government, and Fianna Fail, another center-right party.
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“During the conflict, there was a lot of negativity and abuse when I used to knock on doors, but now we are regarded as a serious alternative to the right-wing establishment parties who have governed this state over the years,” Crowe said.
The IRA’s armed campaign in Northern Ireland and Britain long held back political support for Sinn Fein in Ireland. Against a backdrop of bombs, assassinations and riots, in 1987 Sinn Fein attracted less than 2 percent of the vote in Irish elections.
But by late last year, polls showed Sinn Fein running neck-and-neck with the largest of the governing parties. Although the latest polling suggests Sinn Fein is heading into the election with somewhat lower levels of popular support, it remains strong enough that analysts give it a good chance of increasing the number of seats it holds in the 158-member Parliament into the mid-20s from 14.
Though the vote takes place shortly before the centenary commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule, Sinn Fein has campaigned on more contemporary concerns, such as hospital waiting lists, rising homelessness and the introduction of water charges, which has become a rallying cry against austerity measures.
Three weeks ago, when the date for the election was announced, the smart money was on the Fine Gael-led government coalition returning to power on the back of economic recovery, falling unemployment — and the lack of a credible alternative.
Indeed, on Thursday, Prime Minister Enda Kenny and Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton shared a pot of tea at a Dublin restaurant as they asked voters to keep their 5-year-old coalition government intact. But polls consistently suggest they’ll lose their majority position in Parliament and will need more allies to remain in office.
Analysts said ballots from Friday’s vote could take all weekend to count.
Sinn Fein’s opportunity comes at a time populist, left-leaning parties movements have won converts in many European nations that embraced austerity. Yet David Farrell, a professor of politics at University College Dublin, said it would be a mistake to lump Sinn Fein in with newer left-leaning, anti-austerity movements such as Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece.
“They may be cut from the same cloth politically, but Sinn Fein is not some new political force, rather it is a long-established party with all of the baggage that goes with it,” he said.
The ending of the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland has given the party a more mainstream appeal. Many of its senior personnel are bright, articulate and youthful enough to allow voters to forget events before the 1998 Belfast Agreement that heralded peace in Northern Ireland.
Yet Adams, who swapped his West Belfast political stronghold to win a seat south of the border in County Louth in the last election, has again been a lightning rod. He has never seemed comfortable arguing his party’s case on economic grounds, and time and again during debates his opponents concentrated on his association with events in Northern Ireland during the conflict rather than his role in ending it.
This has extended to other senior members of his party who are also being dragged back to the past.
In one confrontation, the departing minister for health, Leo Varadkar, asked Sinn Fein’s deputy leader, Mary-Lou McDonald, on NewsTalk, a national radio station, Wednesday, “Where’s my party’s legacy of people who were murdered or people who lost their mother, or bodies buried in bogs — or people who are still living today who are maimed, who still carry the scars and burns? To hear Sinn Fein claiming credit for peace because they stopped killing people, it is just unbelievable.”