KILKENNY, Ireland (Reuters) - Gerry Adams said that anger over Ireland’s uneven recovery would hand his Sinn Fein party a breakthrough in elections this month, paving the way in coming years for an “inevitable” entry into government for the former political wing of the IRA.
The nationalist group has already seen a near doubling of support since the last vote, according to opinion polls, leaving it jostling with center-right Fianna Fail for the position of second largest party.
Opposition to austerity measures imposed under Ireland’s 2010 EU-IMF bailout had given way to anger at a recovery that helped the rich more than the poor, ushering in a new political era, Adams told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
“People have been politicized, radicalized by policies of austerity. You see it in (British opposition leader) Jeremy Corbyn ... you see it in Portugal, you see it in Greece and you see it here in Ireland,” he said.
Adams said his party’s past links to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were not seen as a liability by voters.
“Clearly Sinn Fein some time in the next decade is going to be in government. There is no doubt at all about that,” he added during a campaign stop in the southeastern city of Kilkenny.
Since the start of the parliamentary election campaign, Sinn Fein has averaged 18 percent in opinion polls, against Fianna Fail’s 19 percent.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s center-right Fine Gael is well ahead with an average of 29 percent, but it has fallen steadily since the campaign began. With its center-left coalition partner Labour on just 8, Kenny may have to look elsewhere for a coalition partner.
“OLD CERTAINTIES GONE”
A deal between Sinn Fein and either of its center-right rivals appears unlikely, but analysts have forecast that a stint as lead opposition party could set Sinn Fein up to form the next government.
“The old certainties of Fine Gael-Fianna Fail dominated politics... that’s finished,” Adams said. “They are finding it very difficult and I take a lot of pleasure out of that.”
Adams said Kenny’s election slogan “Keeping the Recovery Going” was falling flat because people simply haven’t felt the improvements that two years of near 7 percent gross domestic product growth might imply.
“They haven’t felt it because it hasn’t been directed toward them,” he said.
Sinn Fein is campaigning on opposition to water and house taxes they say disproportionately hit the poor and has promised to increase taxation on incomes over 100,000 euros by an additional 7 percentage points.
The party’s advocacy of a united Ireland including the six counties of Northern Ireland has helped win it a nationalist vote.
But Sinn Fein’s rivals have made repeated references to Adams’ past during the campaign, accusing the party of maintaining a tight-knit culture of secrecy not suited to modern government.
The IRA was responsible for more than half of the 3,600 killings during three decades of violence between Irish Catholic nationalists seeking an end to British rule in Northern Ireland and the British Army and Protestant loyalists who defended it.
The party says the IRA - designated a terrorist group by Britain - “left the stage” in the wake of a 1998 peace deal.
Adams denied that his past links to the IRA was holding back his party. “The only people who raise this issue with me is journalists or political opponents,” he said.
Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by Andrew Heavens