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Sinn Fein Hopes to Become Irish Political Force - 2002-06-12

Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, says it plans to build on recent election victories in the Republic of Ireland to become a political force in southern as well as Northern Ireland.

When the Irish voted last month, they elected five members of the Sinn Fein party to parliament. That compares with only one Sinn Fein member elected in 1997.

Sinn Fein still makes up only a tiny fraction of the 166-member Irish parliament in Dublin.

However, political analysts and Sinn Fein leaders say the party is working hard to expand its influence on both sides of the Irish border in the coming years.

Voters in the Irish republic have traditionally rejected Sinn Fein, which they associated with the violent campaign of the Irish Republican Army to end British rule over Northern Ireland.

But the IRA is observing a cease-fire and has begun disarming under terms of a 1998 peace agreement. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams says this has produced a peace dividend with Irish voters.

"I think that the issue of peace is a big issue for many, many people. And they respect or like or support what we are trying to do with this peace process and we actually asked them to endorse it," he said. " I mean one of the main planks of our platform was seeking people's support for our role in the peace process."

Mr. Adams says Sinn Fein also benefited in the election because Ireland lifted its broadcasting ban against the party.

"It was the first one [election] in which Sinn Fein contested having the advantage of three or four years of access to the airwaves," he noted. " So people listening to local radios could hear the Sinn Fein view on whatever was the issue of the day."

Richard English has written a soon-to-be-published history of the IRA and is a professor of politics at Queen's University in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. He calls the Irish election results a vindication of Sinn Fein's political strategy since the first IRA cease-fire in 1994.

"Sinn Fein have been able to get far more votes in elections north and south in Ireland during the period of the IRA cease-fires than they were ever able to do during a period when the IRA was killing people and blowing things up," he said.

Professor English says Sinn Fein has succeeded at targeting it message at young people who do not remember the IRA's violence.

"There are quite a lot of young voters in both parts of Ireland for whom the IRA's pre-1994 campaign of violence is effectively a pre-historic thing as far as they are concerned," he said.

In Northern Ireland, Professor English says Sinn Fein is on track to become the dominant party of the nationalist movement, representing those who want to end British rule over the province.

The rise in Sinn Fein power has disturbed some of Northern Ireland's unionist leaders, whose political parties favor continued union with Britain.

Professor English says the unionists are experiencing deep divisions because many of them have never fully accepted the 1998 peace agreement.

"The real problem for unionists lies less in what Sinn Fein is doing or in what is happening across the broad nationalist alliance than the dealings within unionism and the divisions and the hostilities and the competition," he explained. " I think in that sense nationalism is in a much more confident, much more positive and enthusiastic situation than Ulster unionism is likely to be in the next decade or so."

Meanwhile, back in the Irish republic, Gerry Adams says Sinn Fein is building a base in both urban and rural areas. He says he is looking forward to putting his political strategy to the test again in Ireland's local elections in 2004.