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Ireland's difficulty is Sinn Fein's opportunity

Gerry Adams has picked the perfect moment to announce his intention of resigning his West Belfast seat and contesting the Louth constituency in the Republic's next election. In the coming months, we can expect talk of an 'Adams bounce' in Sinn Fein's fortunes south of the border.

There was, admittedly, a bit of a push factor in his decision to leave Stormont. With Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister, Adams, as formal leader of the party, was left kicking his heels around Stormont.

He is seen as a bit of a back-street driver, someone who made a grab for the wheel at moments of crisis and slowed down decision making with his 'principled stance' on any issue where compromise was needed. This led to costly and destabilising stand-offs.

Adams's input won't be particularly missed at Stormont, where Sinn Fein needs to focus on the compromises and hard decisions required in government.

At the same time, this is almost the perfect moment for the Sinn Fein leader to switch his attention to the Dail. Circumstances just could not be better.

Of course, great opportunities create great risks and leave no room for complacency - if Adams can't make progress with the wind at his back, then he can't escape the blame that will follow.

First we have today's Donegal South West by-election. Sinn Fein forced the contest by means of a legal challenge. They have an outstanding candidate in Pearse Doherty, a 37-year-old civil engineer.

He is just the sort of able, new face needed to reinvigorate Sinn Fein's lacklustre Dail team. He has honed his political skills in the Irish Senate since being pipped at the post for a Dail seat in 2007.

As a senator, he drew up a joint Oireachtas report on re-invigorating the west of Ireland, which received all-party support. He got 21.7% of the vote in the last general election, but polls now put him on 40% and yesterday the bookies were giving odds of 14-1 on him winning.

If he takes the seat, then Adams will bask in the reflected glory and will certainly be on hand to offer his congratulations and share photocalls at the count tomorrow.

Sinn Fein precipitated the by-election in order to bring the Government down and it now looks as if there will be a general election as soon as a hair shirt budget has been passed by the Fianna Fail-led coalition. That will be in February at the latest, but it could well fall before this.

The situation could not be much better for Sinn Fein. It has never been in government south of the border, unless you count the 1920s, so it can take no blame for the economic catastrophe that has hit the country. Economic ideas which appeared half-baked and naive only a few years ago can now be presented as blue-sky thinking.

In the last Dail election campaign, Adams seriously damaged his party's chances when, in the course of an RTE debate, he answered detailed questions on economic policy with broad-brush appeals to human rights.

He came across as not knowing what he was talking about and the other party representatives made fun of him. Now that the economic model the other parties favoured is in crisis, Adams's aspirational message may gain a hearing.

Irish government bonds have reached almost junk levels, with interest rates going near to 9% at one point and the banks are so over-extended that no-one with any sense will lend money to them.

All this came on the back of a classic asset-bubble based on cheap credit and pumped up by tax incentives to property developers and the IMF and the EU have now come in to take up the slack. Tremendous hardship will be imposed on the population and there is no guarantee that it will work. In classic Marxist terms, this is a crisis of capitalism, almost a pre-revolutionary situation. At the very least, it is the perfect opportunity for a party like Sinn Fein to fight an election and the perfect moment for Adams to take charge.

There will inevitably be a swing to the Left south of the border, but, on current polling, the major beneficiary will be the Irish Labour Party.

Its leader, Eamon Gilmore, is also the favourite to be Taoiseach. It looks likely that Labour and Fine Gael will form the next government - and the leaders of both parties detest Sinn Fein with a passion.

That is also good for Adams. Instead of taking responsibility for hard economic decisions, he will have four or five years to pontificate from the opposition benches and berate Gilmore for not forming a Left alliance with Sinn Fein when he had a chance.

You could call it posturing, but if the economic situation does not improve, it could help build Sinn Fein's support.

These are great opportunities and others in Sinn Fein could take advantage of them. Could our education system survive if, as one blogger suggested, Caitriona Ruane follows her leader south?

There could be a seat waiting for her in her native Mayo.