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Oct 9, 12:58 PM EDT

Sinn Fein ties Irish government party for 1st time


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DUBLIN (AP) -- A Republic of Ireland opinion poll has found that Sinn Fein, the nationalist party long an outsider in southern Irish politics, has grown as popular as the main government party for the first time.

Analysts say Sinn Fein could win both parliamentary seats being filled in two special elections Friday, putting more pressure on the two-party government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny with a general election looming by 2016.

Thursday's findings in the Irish Times newspaper put Kenny's center-right Fine Gael party at 24 percent voter support, matching a record low since gaining power in 2011. And Sinn Fein rose 4 percentage points to join Fine Gael at 24 percent, reflecting the party's populist appeals to shift tax burdens to Ireland's richest citizens in an era of unrelenting austerity.

Fianna Fail, the once-dominant party blamed for imploding Ireland's economy at the end of the last decade, rated 20 percent support, down 5 points. Kenny's coalition partner, the left-wing Labour Party, was on 9 percent. Independent lawmakers had 23 percent support.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail trace their origins to a split in the original Sinn Fein movement that pushed for Irish independence from Britain in the early 20th century. Today's Sinn Fein led by Gerry Adams has evolved since the 1970s from the ranks of the Provisional branch of the Irish Republican Army in the neighboring British territory of Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein long struggled to win elections in the Republic of Ireland because of its links to Provisional IRA bloodshed. But the party has scored steady gains in the south since the Provisionals renounced violence in 2005 and Sinn Fein formed a Northern Ireland unity government in 2007 alongside British Protestant leaders.

Thursday's poll had an error margin of 3 percentage points.

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