Gerry Adams rides anti-austerity wave in Ireland vote

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Dublin (AFP) - Once the political voice of the IRA, then a peacemaker, now a top anti-austerity candidate in this week's elections in Ireland: Gerry Adams has gone through an apparent transformation over four decades.

Striding through crowds at a march against budget cuts and tax hikes in a country still scarred by the economic crisis, the Sinn Fein leader said that the thousands taking part heralded winds of change.

"It's the government's worst nightmare," Adams told AFP at the Dublin protest as supporters vied to shake his hand ahead of the vote on Friday.

Ireland is "embracing an alternative," he said.

The outgoing government led by Prime Minister Enda Kenny could struggle to form a majority and Sinn Fein could emerge as the main opposition party, hoping to gain as much as double its previous seat count of 14.

"The last election was a big breakthrough for us so hopefully we'll build on that this time around," the 67-year-old Adams said, his bright red scarf tied up under his greying beard against a wet and wintry day.

His new image is a far cry from the bloodiest years of the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland when he would defend the actions of paramilitaries and his voice was banned from British airwaves.

- Manifesto for a united Ireland -

Sinn Fein's priorities are to scrap a property tax and controversial water charges that have crystallised anger towards austerity.

Sinn Fein's manifesto also includes a commitment to a referendum on a united Ireland, ending the division between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the republic.

"We would love to see it as quickly as possible but that's work in progress at the moment," Adams said.

Adams first took the helm of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland three decades ago when it was seen as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and in recent years has led a push by the party for power in the neighbouring republic.

He became involved with politics as a teenager and was imprisoned without trial in the midst of The Troubles -- 30 years of violence in which 3,500 people died, with the IRA waging a campaign of violence to drive Britain out of Northern Ireland.

Adams helped broker a landmark 1998 peace deal that largely ended the conflict, and has since sought broader popular support across the whole island, cultivating a kindly image with whimsical comments about teddy bears and chocolate on Twitter while retaining a bedrock of republican support.

He has served in the Irish parliament since 2011 after resigning as an MP for West Belfast -- a seat he never took up in Britain's parliament because Sinn Fein do not recognise Westminster's jurisdiction over Northern Ireland.

- 'Support is only rising' -

Although Adams has always denied being a member of the IRA paramilitary group, his association with Northern Ireland's decades of conflict has been repeatedly targeted by rivals to undermine his election campaign.

In a pre-election debate, he was challenged on IRA kneecappings, disappearances and sexual abuse -- with Micheal Martin, leader of the Fianna Fail party, accusing him of being a member of the IRA.

"If you look at the trajectory of support for Sinn Fein, their support is only rising," said University of Limerick politics lecturer Maura Adshead.

"Which is why all parties are keen to suggest that Sinn Fein is not really democratic, it can't really be trusted, and will take every occasion to link the current Sinn Fein with the past Sinn Fein, to link them with violence."

Commentators have questioned whether Sinn Fein might be in a stronger position if Adams stepped aside for a fresher face such as Dubliner Mary Lou McDonald, the party's 46-year-old deputy leader.

"I would imagine in the not too distant future he'll decide it's time to bow out, but as long as he wants to remain as leader he has the pretty much unanimous support of the party," Sinn Fein justice and equality spokesman Padraig Mac Lochlainn told AFP.

For now, Adams shows little signs of slowing and insists it is now a question of "when, not if" Sinn Fein will get into government in Dublin.

His message for Kenny's government?: "Adios amigos."

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