By Lorraine Turner
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Support for the Irish government has dropped significantly, a poll showed on Friday, at a time when it has to persuade Irish citizens to back the European Union's fiscal treaty in a May 31 referendum.
The poll also showed the popularity of Sinn Fein, the former political wing of guerrilla group the Irish Republican Army (IRA), rising due to its anti-austerity stance, making it Ireland's second most popular political party.
The Irish Times poll, carried out by IPOS/MRBI, showed that satisfaction with the government has dropped 14 percentage points to 23 percent since the last poll in October.
Support for Sinn Fein, which is leading the 'no' vote campaign in the referendum, rose to 21 percent, its highest rating in an Irish Times poll.
This comes at a difficult time for the government which is trying to persuade people to back the EU's fiscal treaty in the referendum, with an opinion poll on Thursday showing that 40 percent of voters are undecided, leaving the result wide open.
Unlike most other European countries, Irish citizens are entitled to vote on any major transfer of powers to Brussels. They rejected the last two European referendums, most recently in 2008, before passing them once concessions were offered.
As a bailed-out country, however, Ireland could find itself in an uncomfortable position with its currency bloc partners if it fails to sign up to the fiscal rules.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny's centre-right Fine Gael party was down three points to 33 percent. Kenny's satisfaction rating was down ten points to 42 percent but he remains the country's most popular leader.
Kenny's government, swept into office a year ago, enjoys a record parliamentary majority and has impressed investors with its adherence to its bailout targets.
"I think the government will be worried about the referendum because there isn't sense that there is a clear lead on the yes side....but I don't think people are going to use it to punish the government as such," said Eoin O'Malley, politics lecturer at Dublin City University (DCU).
A continuing slide in support for junior coalition party Labour, to the benefit of Sinn Fein, could cause concern among Labour backbenchers and make it more difficult to push through unpopular measures such as welfare cuts.
"It might cause some tension within government because Labour will feel it has to assert itself more if it's going to maintain its credibility...parties on the left such as Sinn Fein are going to find it very easy to oppose Labour and put it under pressure," he added.
Labour, criticized by its traditional trade union allies, has seen its poll ratings suffer more than the centre-right Fine Gael's in recent surveys. Ratings fell 6 points to 13 percent and support for party leader Eamon Gilmore has sunk 14 points to 27 percent, only days after its party conference in Galway.
(Reporting by Lorraine Turner, editing by Diana Abdallah)