KILKENNY, Ireland – Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams announced Sunday he intends to quit his political posts in Northern Ireland and seek election to parliament in the Republic of Ireland, a surprise gambit timed to capitalize on the economic crisis.
Adams told supporters in the border county of Louth he would seek to win one of the area's seats whenever Prime Minister Brian Cowen calls a general election. Adams said he would resign as the British Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly member for Catholic west Belfast, his lifetime power base.
"I have asked people to make a stand. I believe that it is my duty at this critical time to step forward and do what I have asked of others," he told supporters beside a memorial to five IRA men who accidentally blew themselves up in 1957.
Cowen, who since 2008 has overseen Ireland's rapid demise from Celtic Tiger to European deficit leader, has only a three-vote majority in Dail Eireann, Ireland's parliament. His Fianna Fail party expects to lose a Nov. 25 by-election to Sinn Fein, cutting its majority to two.
Three further by-elections loom, all expected to end in government losses and destroying Cowen's capacity to cling to power through the government's full term ending in 2012. Most analysts consider an election sometime in 2011 almost certain.
Belfast-born Adams, 62, is an Irish Republican Army veteran and leader of Sinn Fein since 1983, when he won the British parliamentary seat for West Belfast for the first time. Adams and four other Sinn Fein figures who hold House of Commons posts refuse to take their seats in London, citing its requirement for an oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II.
Adams, like hundreds of thousands of Northern Ireland's Catholics, holds Irish citizenship.
In the mid-1980s, Adams spurred his party to end its decades-old policy of boycotting elections in both parts of Ireland, and in recent years has built Sinn Fein into the major voice of the north's Catholic minority.
He holds one of Sinn Fein's 27 seats in the 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly, but has taken a back seat there to Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, who helps lead the territory's coalition government alongside British Protestants.
Adams said he would resign his Assembly post immediately, but would stay as the West Belfast MP until the Irish election.
In the south, Sinn Fein long has been seen as a "foreign" IRA mouthpiece out of touch with the very different politics and social systems of the Republic of Ireland. Underscoring its fringe status, Sinn Fein currently holds just four seats in the 166-member Dail. During the last Irish election in 2007, Adams was widely criticized for stumbling debate performances when he demonstrated little fluency on Irish government agencies and issues.
But Irish politics appears poised for a dramatic turn to the left following Cowen's disastrous move to bail out five debt-crippled banks.
The bailout bill has steadily escalated to top euro45 billion ($63 billion) and is driving this year's deficit to 32 percent of gross domestic product, a postwar European record. Cowen has imposed three emergency budgets and is preparing his biggest yet in December, when the republic's 4.5 million citizens expect to receive another euro4.5 billion ($6.3 billion) in cuts and euro1.5 billion ($2.1 billion) in tax hikes. Speculation is rife that Ireland could be forced to tap an EU rescue fund.
The two traditional conservative powers of Irish politics, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, both are languishing in the polls while the left-of-center Labor Party is in front for the first time since the south won independence from Britain in 1922. Sinn Fein now could position itself as a potential coalition partner to Labour and other left-wing voices, who are expected to prosper with unemployment near a 16-year high.
Analysts still consider a Labour-Fine Gael coalition the most likely outcome. But Adams' unexpected entry into the race could give Sinn Fein candidates a boost nationwide.
Louth, midway between Belfast and Dublin, is a traditional IRA power base with four parliamentary seats. Sinn Fein has solid support in the area, but it also is home to IRA die-hards who now back splinter groups opposed to Adams, the IRA's 1997 cease-fire, and power-sharing in Northern Ireland.