DUBLIN (Reuters) - Six years of austerity have transformed former Irish Republican Army political wing Sinn Fein from nationalist outsiders to contenders to enter government, threatening the biggest shake-up of Irish politics in generations.
Until two decades ago Sinn Fein leaders like Gerry Adams were banned from even speaking on Irish television and much of the establishment still scoffs at the prospect of voters actually putting them into government.
But the leftist party looks set to win one of two parliamentary by-elections on Friday, cementing gains that has seen all major opinion polls in the past four months place them as the first or second most popular party in the country.
As a sudden economic resurgence shifts the political ground 18 months ahead of an election, they are betting the trickle-down to their core working class voters will be too slow and uneven to prevent people abandoning mainstream parties.
“Talk of a recovery just angers people,” said Cathal King, favorite to take the seat from Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael party in Dublin South West constituency, which includes some of the worst unemployment black spots in the country.
“If there is a recovery anywhere it’s not here,” he said.
As the councilor in jeans and running shoes shoves leaflets into letter boxes, locals stop to complain about the water charges of hundreds of euros a year, irrespective of income, and thank him for help securing social housing.
Since completing an international bailout last year, Ireland has been bucking the trend in Europe’s stalled economic recovery. Irish employment is up, exports are rebounding and Dublin house prices rose by a quarter in a year.
Yet water charges have nullified the government’s triumphant boast that its 2015 budget to be unveiled next week will be free of major austerity measures for the first time in seven years.
“For me the struggle is still there,” said Marie Flanagan, 51, an unemployed shop worker and Sinn Fein voter who said any upturn in the economy was outweighed for most of her neighbours by the new charges. “It’s not balancing itself out,” she said.
Getting into government both north and south for the centenary of Ireland’s 1916 uprising against British rule would be a historic bookend to the career of party leader Gerry Adams, 66, who started out as a Belfast barman in the late 1960s before becoming de facto spokesman of the IRA as Sinn Fein leader.
Many Irish voters say they would not consider voting for Sinn Fein due to their association with the IRA’s campaign of shootings and bombings against British rule from the early 1970s until a peace deal in 1997, a conflict in which over 3,500 died.
But many others have become inured to references to the Troubles after decades of media debate and are instead focused on negative equity, unemployment and controversial new taxes.
“It’s water under the bridge,” said Bridget Morrissey, 67, who said she was switching to Sinn Fein from current junior coalition partner Labor.
While commentators warned Adams’ arrest for several days earlier this year in relation to the 1972 abduction and murder of Jean McConville might damage the party’s standing, it had no impact when it tripled its local government representation at elections weeks later. Adams denies involvement in the crime.
A repeat of that performance would put them firmly in the equation when the next government, almost certainly a coalition, is formed after elections in 2016.
Yet Sinn Fein has traditionally performed better in opinion polls than elections and would also have to work with parties it has spent years feuding with.
In addition to frequent jibes about their links to the IRA, Sinn Fein’s rivals consistently attack their economic policies as un-costed opposition to taxes and spending cuts.
Finance Minister Michael Noonan recently guffawed at their “pretend” economics. Sinn Fein counters that its policies make perfect sense to small business owners and middle-income workers.
Another line of attack is Sinn Fein’s performance as part of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, where it has been accused of refusing to take the hard decisions needed in government leading to a stand-off with London over its budget. [ID:nL6N0RT14P]
But Sinn Fein counters that seven years in government in Belfast will provide proof to sceptical Irish voters that it can run a country.
While Sinn Fein rallies still feature tricolours and odes to a united Ireland, their media appearances are completely dominated by economic policy: opposition to austerity measures and demands for higher earners to bear more of the tax burden.
It retains the aim of uniting the Republic of Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland, but its nationalism is far more muted than that of parties like UKIP in Britain and the Front National in France that are threatening the political status quo. It is broadly supportive of immigration and a reformed European Union.
Adams has honed his image with a smart-casual wardrobe and quirky Twitter persona, but it is his young ambitious front bench that have differentiated the party from its opponents.
His clean cut finance spokesman Pearse Doherty, 37 with a distinctive Donegal brogue, has demonstrated a grasp of Dublin’s debt negotiations with Europe that sometimes escapes his leader.
Combative deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald, a 45-year-old English literature graduate, is widely seen as one of the best performers in parliament. Two of its three new members of the European Parliament - itself a record haul - are in their 30s.
Its battle to convert poll responses into seats in parliament will be fought on two levels, activists say: cronyism in government and how fairly the recovery is distributed.
Firstly they will try to convince the electorate that they are the only party capable of shaking up the comfortable centre-right duopoly of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail who have alternated as ruling party for most of the past century.
But above all it will be on how quickly a rising economy can lift the boats of the biggest losers in the financial crisis, the working and lower-middle class voters plagued with unemployment and negative equity.
“The rising economy is a mixed blessing for the government. Only small proportions of the population are experiencing the end of austerity,” said University College Dublin politics professor David Farrell.
This frustration means Sinn Fein now expects, even in their worst-case scenario, to become the largest opposition party for the first time. “Their best-case would be to be the party that everyone wants to form a coalition with,” he said.
Editing by Padraic Halpin and Anna Willard