Northern Ireland

What now for Sinn Fein in the Republic?

Fianna Fail's loss could be Sinn Fein's gain as some predict that the party could move from five to ten seats in the Republic's elections. Ken Murray looks from the current turmoil in Irish politics to what the future might hold.

When one looks back on recent events in Irish political and economic life, there was something ironic about the last public engagement undertaken by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

On 6 May 2008, as he prepared to hand in his Seal of Office, he officially opened the Battle of the Boyne interpretive centre just outside Drogheda.

To mark the symbolism of the occasion, he presented the then Stormont First Minister and DUP leader Dr Ian Paisley with a musket.

Image caption Gerry Adams

It was a way of saying: "The battle is over".

Everybody smiled, the island of Ireland was at peace and a massive weight lifted off everyone's shoulders.

That included the shoulders of the Dublin government who, until then, had been throwing out money on projects like confetti at a wedding on the back of an extraordinary economic boom which began in the mid 1990's.

The only problem was, as one battle ended, a new one had just begun.

Within hours, Brian Cowen had succeeded Bertie Ahern and, following a honeymoon period that lasted weeks, it all seemed to go down hill.

The Lisbon Treaty was rejected by a confused Irish electorate in June, making the country unpopular in Brussels; housing construction came to a virtual standstill by the end of August and, at the end of September, the country's main banks came knocking at the doors of government with their begging bowls, looking for cash to stay in business.

Ever since then, the popularity of the Irish government, Fianna Fail and its leader Brian Cowen have been falling rapidly in the opinion polls.

As unemployment increased to its current level of 13.4% and negative equity took hold, affecting 300,000 home owners, the humiliating arrival of the IMF sent out a signal that the Irish could not manage their own economic affairs.

All that before anyone talks about rising emigration, which is now estimated at 50,000 people per year.

Meanwhile, the anger of a bewildered electorate has swung towards the opposition and any party that says it has a magic wand to get the Republic of Ireland out of its current difficulties.

Among the beneficiaries of this shift in political popularity are the main opposition parties Fine Gael, Labour and a Sinn Fein movement who, many believe, could double its representation in the next Dail from their current number of five TDs.

Sinn Fein has been beavering away in the Republic since 2007 following an election in which their number of TDs fell by one when Sean Crowe surprisingly lost his seat in Dublin South West.

This was seen as something of a surprise as many felt the IRA's declaration of total arms decommissioning in July 2005 and the evolving peace process had brought them in from the political wilderness.

The feeling was, if they didn't peak in the Republic, then they had missed their opportunity.

However, the painful decline in the Irish economy has made people angry with the political establishment and nowhere was this expressed more loudly than in Donegal South-West last November where Sinn Fein Senator Pearse Doherty took a perennial Fianna Fail Dail seat.

In the meantime, Sinn President Gerry Adams has been looking south where he senses his party is on a roll.

Image caption Pearse Doherty took a Fianna Fail seat in Donegal South West

The public face of Irish republicanism has forfeited his Westminster seat in west Belfast, first won in 1983 and has opted to throw his hat in the ring in the newly expanded constituency of Louth to usurp the seat being vacated by former Maze prisoner Arthur Morgan who is returning to the family fish business.

Elsewhere, Padraig McLaughlin in Donegal North-East, Dessie Ellis in Dublin North-West, Mary-Lou McDonald in Bertie Ahern's old stomping ground of Dublin Central, Toireasa Ferris in Kerry South and Maurice Quinlavin in Limerick are hotly tipped to take seats in the 31st Dail which could bring the party's TD numbers up to ten.

Sinn Fein are unlikely to be king makers but some commentators have remarked that they could overtake Fianna Fail in terms of seats to become the real voices of Irish republicanism.

The rise of their popularity from a fickle electorate that, in the main, despised them only two decades ago, could signal that a new battle for the hearts and minds of Irish republicanism is well and truly underway in Eamon De Valera's embattled Republic.

When one looks back on recent events in Irish political and economic life, there was something ironic about the last public engagement undertaken by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.