Page last updated at 10:43 GMT, Monday, 5 April 2010 11:43 UK

Profile: Sinn Fein

Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams is the leader of the party

Sinn Fein became Northern Ireland's largest party at the 2009 European election.

The party's top spot, won with 26% share of the vote, was largely due to splits in unionism.

But no doubt Sinn Fein - the largest nationalist party since 2001 - will be aiming to keep this crown in the forthcoming Westminster election.

This will be the first Westminster poll that Sinn Fein has fought without the IRA in existence.

Its paramilitary partner, which shared its aim to deliver an independent Irish Republic, went out of business shortly after the 2005 poll.

Sinn Fein won an unprecedented five seats in that election, gaining Newry and Armagh at the expense of its old nationalist rival, the SDLP.

However, it failed to unseat the SDLP in Foyle, so that will be a key target in this election.

So will, South Down, where the new SDLP leader, Margaret Ritchie, has picked up the mantle following the retirement of her colleague, veteran Eddie McGrady.

Sinn Fein has selected education minister Caitriona Ruane for South Down, and the party will undoubtedly be piling its resources into the constituency, long regarded as the safest of the SDLP's seats.

Seats

The party however will also be working to defend its existing five seats.

The party leader, MP for West Belfast, Gerry Adams has the safest seat in Northern Ireland, with a vote share at the last election close to 70%.

The main talking point this time will be the size of his majority. The Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, MP doesn't appear to be under any pressure in Mid-Ulster.

The same could be said for Conor Murphy in Newry and Armagh. Fermanagh-South Tyrone has the lowest majority of all its seats and could be vulnerable, particularly if unionists agree a pact.

Pat Doherty, MP, has been selected again to defend West Tyrone - where he won easily the last time.

This election may be more interesting however if, as expected, the independent hospital campaigner, Kieran Deeney, sits this race out.

While seeking to make gains in South Down and Foyle, traditionally nationalist seats, Sinn Fein will also be pouring resources into seats that are traditionally unionist.

This includes North Belfast, where Gerry Kelly has been making steady gains. In Upper Bann, Sinn Fein will be seeking to exploit unionist divisions also.

Houses of Parliament
The party's MPs do not attend Westminster

Sinn Fein is fighting this election from its position as joint leadership of the Northern Ireland assembly and Executive.

It has 28 seats in the assembly and five ministers. And it will be promoting the devolution of policing and justice, expected on 12 April, as an achievement.

But with stability there will be more focus on its record on bread and butter issues. These include the economy and its stewardship of the education issue, not least the controversial issue of academic selection.

The party remains committed to its abstentionist policy, with all of its MPs refusing to attend Westminster.

Its MPs do not get salaries as a result. Sinn Fein however did get caught up in the expenses row last year when its MPs were found to be claiming tens of thousands of pounds for accommodation in London, despite making only infrequent trips.

The party was also accused to paying too much for two rental properties - an allegation it denied. Sinn Fein however subsequently terminated its rental agreement on the properties.

While other parties have been sensitive to criticism about double-jobbing, Sinn Fein, with its non-attendance, does not seem to be too bothered about standing MLAs and ministers.

Sinn Fein's critics will complain about its abstentionism, which could be more significant in Westminster terms than usual, if there was a hung Parliament.

Sinn Fein, as ever, will be fighting this election with a view to the next one: the assembly poll in May 2011.

This election is not just about winning seats. It is about gaining ground at the expense of the SDLP and unionism.



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