DUBLIN Sinn Fein hopes to ride a wave of anger against austerity measures to achieve its ambition of ruling Ireland, its leader Gerry Adams said on Friday, as misgivings about its role in the Northern Ireland conflict fade.
The political wing of the now-defunct Irish Republican Army has seen its support surge since Ireland's Celtic Tiger economy began to collapse in 2008 and is now the second most popular party in the country, according to opinion polls.
With the three largest parties in parliament all backing a programme of austerity under an IMF-EU bailout, Sinn Fein, until recently viewed as political pariahs in the Republic of Ireland, are sweeping up as the chief outlet for dissent.
"Our ambition is to be the main party on the island," Adams told Reuters in an interview outside Ireland's parliament where he took a seat for the first time last year after calling time on his political career north of the border.
"The party is growing, we are getting very, very good attendances at public meetings," he said. "There is a process of politicization across the state and increasing numbers are looking to us to provide leadership."
Europe's economic and debt crisis has boosted populist parties in many countries, with groups from the far right and hard left tapping anger at the failure of politicians to resolve the situation.
In Ireland, Sinn Fein's mixture of left-leaning populism and nationalism is gaining support beyond its traditional working class base. Its score of 21 percent in a recent Irish Times poll last month was its largest yet.
The government's backing for an austerity drive dictated by Ireland's international lenders and set to continue for at least another four years is becoming an increasingly easy target.
"What we articulate has an echo in each of the European states. ...people realise that austerity isn't working," said Adams. "There are many many voices that are arguing that you can't cut your way out of recession."
Sinn Fein has in the past struggled to win support among Ireland's dominant middle class, which has been reluctant to support a party associated with the IRA's campaign of violence, which killed innocent civilians.
For years Adams was seen as the face of republican opposition to British rule in Northern Ireland, and he was once interned as a paramilitary suspect during Northern Ireland's three decades of violence.
The economic crisis, however, has provided a new platform for Sinn Fein, with a party whose members were officially banned from speaking on Irish media until 1993 now featured daily on national television news.
"RADICAL, PRACTICAL VOICE"
Sinn Fein is the only large political party to oppose the European Fiscal Treaty, a German-led bid to put austerity limits into national legislation. A May 31 referendum on the treaty is expected to be the EU's only popular vote on the treaty.
The "Yes" campaign is leading in most polls, but large numbers are undecided and some of the country's main unions recently refused to back the treaty, saying they could not recommend additional austerity to their members.
The main battle is being fought over the wording of the treaty, where a "No" vote would cut Ireland off from additional funding from Europe's new permanent bailout fund should it - as is likely - need additional non-market funding when its 85 billion euro bailout ends next year.
But Adams says European parties would not dare cut Ireland off. "I have no doubt about that whatsoever...They are not going to risk contagion across the European Union. I think the government are scaremongering on this," said Adams.
Last year's election, when Sinn Fein tripled its seats to a record 14 in the Republic of Ireland's 166-seat lower chamber, gave notice that the party could one day match its success in the north where it shares power.
The party hopes to consolidate its position as the second most popular party at the next elections and would consider forming a coalition government as a stepping stone to its ultimate goal.
"People now have a clearer view of Sinn Fein. There is no boundary in terms of the continued development of Sinn Fein as an alternative, radical but practical, voice," Adams said.
(Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by Myra MacDonald)