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DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish protest party Sinn Fein is set to reap the rewards of opposing austerity with a major breakthrough at elections this month, but its push to enter government has stumbled over an improving economy and unease about its ties to the IRA.
Party leader Gerry Adams, the face of Irish Republican Army bombing campaigns for many in Britain, confounded critics by steering his party's support from 10 percent in the last parliamentary election in 2011 to an opinion poll rating of 26 percent this time last year.
Boosted by its opposition to an unpopular EU/IMF austerity programme, it has said it hopes to emulate the success of other protest parties in Greece and Portugal to enter government and reverse cuts.
But its support slipped back to an average of 18 percent in opinion polls this year as Prime Minister Enda Kenny's coalition has presided over the fastest-growing economy in Europe.
Sinn Fein is still fighting for an unprecedented second place in an election where polls suggest no party will have enough votes to govern alone. But rivals' aversion to the party due to its past IRA links means it is unlikely to secure a spot in the next government coalition.
"This is going to be a great election for Sinn Fein ... but we're a long way from the kind of scenarios we've seen in Greece and Portugal," said David Farrell, Professor of Politics at University College Dublin, citing the party's "toxicity" to some voters and potential partners.
"But if we imagine a future election in four or five years time, on this sort of trajectory, then could be talking about a Sinn Fein government at that stage," he added.
Sinn Fein was the political wing of the IRA, which 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 insists the IRA - designated a terrorist group by Britain - "left the stage" in the wake of a 1998 peace deal.
It is now benefiting from support among a new generation too young to remember IRA attacks, said Sinn Fein candidate Chris Andrews, who analysts say is a serious contender in a Dublin constituency where the party had previously never stood a realistic chance of victory.
"Most of the people here canvassing were only toddlers when the first ceasefire happened," said Andrews. "The electorate see that Sinn Fein is moving on and becoming a very central part of politics in Ireland."
Sinn Fein's progress has been built on support in working class areas worn down by tax increases, spending cuts and high unemployment as Ireland has toiled under the austerity programme that was a condition of its 2010 international bailout.
The party has particularly benefited from a decline in support for centre-left junior coalition partner Labour, accused by some voters of backing down to Kenny's centre-right Fine Gael in allowing new water charges and property taxes and cuts to services they say have hit the poor hardest.
"I feel as if I am being forced into voting for Sinn Fein now because Labour have abandoned the working class," said Vivian Nicol, 57, who works at Dublin airport. Andrews is helping his efforts to resist eviction from his terraced house built for dock workers after the expansion of the nearby "Silicon Docks" office district inflated rents.
"I'd still have reservations. I still think it's a bit early for Sinn Fein (after the Northern Ireland violence)... But I feel as if I've no one else to vote for," said Nicol.
But Sinn Fein weakened last year as its voice of protest carried less weight among some voters in the face of an economy that expanded by around 7 percent and falling unemployment.
Some rivals accuse the party of inheriting a tight-knit culture of secrecy and lack of respect for the law from when it was banned in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s because of its ties to the IRA.
In the past year, revelations about the IRA's failure to go to the police with allegations of sex assaults by a member of the group in the 1990s and Adams' defence of the alleged former chief of staff of the IRA after a tax evasion conviction have done little to dispel such perceptions.
Dismissing the possibility of serving in a coalition with Sinn Fein, the leader of the biggest opposition party Fianna Fail, Michael Martin, last month described it as operating "like a mafia organisation".
Sinn Fein says it has been the subject of a steady flow of politically motivated attacks in the media and that it is an open and modern political party.
But Fianna Fail's sentiments are shared by some voters; Evelyn, a 33-year-old finance worker in Dublin, who declined to give her surname, said she could not vote for or trust Sinn Fein because of its past links to militants.
"I never would have considered them and I never will."
Editing by Pravin Char