By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - The four-day detention of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has given a reality check to the nationalist party's ambition of entering government in the Irish republic, and to a new generation of activists trying to win over skeptical voters.
His arrest last week and subsequent release by Northern Ireland police investigating a 1972 abduction and murder has complicated election campaigning south of the border by younger Sinn Fein politicians.
It has also raised the question of how much longer Adams, a dominant figure in Sinn Fein for decades, can lead the party before handing over to members who are untainted by the Irish Republican Army's actions during its long war against British rule in the north.
Instead of mounting an offensive against the Dublin government's unpopular austerity policies, the new generation have been forced to defend their veteran leader against allegations that he was involved in the 40-year-old crime, charges that Adams vigorously denies.
"I think it is the intention of some to use the past as a tool to damage our electoral prospects, however I think people are wiser than that," deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said, reiterating Sinn Fein's belief that the arrest was timed to hurt its chances in the elections later this month.
"I think Sinn Fein has developed a level of credibility, a level of trust with the electorate and have convinced a growing number of people that we present an alternative that protects society and community," she told Reuters.
Once the political wing of the IRA, Sinn Fein already shares power in the Northern Ireland government under a 1998 deal that largely ended three decades of bloodshed. It has also gained popularity in the republic and has appeared set to make further progress in the European and local elections.
Adams, an architect of the peace deal, was released without charge. However, it is not yet clear whether his detention has undermined Sinn Fein in its quest to turn anger in the republic over relentless budget cuts and disenchantment with established parties into seats at the Dublin cabinet table for the first time after parliamentary elections due in 2016.
McDonald, 45, is the face of the new breed of Sinn Fein politicians transforming the party's image. An English literature graduate from Trinity College Dublin - which before independence was a pillar of the Anglo-Irish establishment - she gave up her doctorate studies for a career in politics and is seen as Sinn Fein's leader in waiting.
Together with other able public performers such as finance spokesman Pearse Doherty, they have propelled Sinn Fein firmly into third place in most opinion polls. The party is in contention to win a record three of the Irish republic's 11 seats in the European Parliament, potentially equaling Prime Minister Enda Kenny's Fine Gael party.
Sinn Fein is also running a higher proportion of candidates between the ages of 18 and 35 in local elections than any of the other major parties, while almost a third of those running are women, again higher than the rest and almost twice as many as rival opposition Fianna Fail party.
TEDDY BEARS AND PILATES CLASSES
Sinn Fein's makeover aims to make the party more palatable to voters still suspicious of its role in Northern Ireland's "Troubles". This includes a Twitter feed that recounts the escapades of the party leader's teddy bears and Pilates classes.
Adams took to his Twitter page minutes after his release to tell his followers: "Just 2 let U know this tweet is back".
He has cultivated the image of a statesman who helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland and as a defender of working families. But his arrest was a reminder that he was once reviled by many as the face of republicanism in the conflict that cost 3,600 lives.
Adams, who has always denied membership of the IRA, has led the party for over 30 years, first bringing it to powersharing with pro-British unionists in the north and then presiding over its best showing in the south in 2011 parliamentary elections.
But at 65, he will have to anoint a successor sooner rather than later.
"He has extraordinary longevity. There is no parallel for it in modern politics but you can stay too long," said Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin.
"That legacy of the Troubles was always going to hang around Adams. It also means that the younger generation need to be wheeled out to insist that they believe his denials that he was ever in the IRA. How sustainable is that? This is obviously not the focus they want long term."
DETERMINED TO HANG ON
There is no leadership issue at all right now, according to McDonald, who describes Adams as "giant of Irish politics".
Her view is shared by other members who point to his standing as the most popular leader in the country in recent opinion polls. Party officials say no formal or informal discussions on succession planning have taken place.
"I'm in a constituency where there's huge voter potential for the party, particularly among lower middle-class voters. I don't get a lot of people saying, we'd really like to vote for your party but we can't do it while Gerry's there," party strategist and local councilor Eoin O'Broin said.
Adams has begun building a layer of leadership beneath his own, handing the likes of McDonald and Doherty positions of responsibility, but they will probably have to wait in line.
Aides say he is determined to remain Sinn Fein president until at least 2016, the centenary of the Dublin uprising which with set Ireland on the path to independence from Britain in the 1920s.
"It will happen sometime, but there won't be anyone challenging Gerry Adams until he decides to bow out," said finance spokesman Doherty. "I have no doubt whatsoever that he will lead the party into the 2016 election."
(Additional reporting by Conor Humphries; editing by David Stamp)