DUBLIN (Reuters) - Sinn Fein, once the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, has drawn level with Prime Minister Enda Kenny's Fine Gael as Ireland's most popular party ahead of two by-elections where it is looking to cement recent gains, a poll showed on Thursday.
The leftist Sinn Fein's public standing has risen during Ireland's financial crisis with its support up four percentage points to 24 percent in the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll.
Sinn Fein tripled its local government representation at elections in May to close in on Ireland's two dominant parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, and is favoured to win one of the two parliamentary seats at by-elections on Friday.
The poll showed Sinn Fein's support most concentrated in poorer, urban areas, reflecting its opposition to the unpopular introduction of a new property tax last year and water charges which will commence in 2015.
Sinn Fein has been part of a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland since a 1998 peace deal that ended the IRA's guerrilla war to merge the British province with Ireland. The IRA later disbanded.
In Ireland, Sinn Fein has traditionally performed better in opinion polls than elections. It was polling at 20 percent ahead of May's local elections, then won 15 percent of the vote.
Support for Kenny's centre-right Fine Gael was unchanged since the last Irish Times poll in May, while Fianna Fail fell five percentage points to 20 percent. Junior government party Labor, under new leader Joan Burton, rose two to nine percent.
The poll shows the challenge facing Kenny's government in the final 18 months of their term to make sure that economic growth - which rose by an annual 7.7 percent in the second quarter of the year - is felt by voters weary of austerity.
The upturn would allow the government to cut rather than raise income tax in next week's budget - a milestone moment after years of tough decisions - but analysts said that with other charges on the way, the impact will be limited.
"The budget next week should be a good news story for Fine Gael and Labor, but the celebrations may be muted," Ipsos MRBI managing director Damian Loscher said.
"What may be a neutral budget from a Department of Finance perspective will feel anything but neutral for voters who begin paying for their water in January and who, more generally, have yet to see economic growth translate into a rise in living standards."
Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Mark Heinrich