Long a political pariah, Sinn Fein relishes its breakthrough

DUBLIN, Feb 9 (Reuters) - When Aengus O Snodaigh first sought election to Ireland's parliament in 1987, he and his Sinn Fein colleagues were banned from speaking on Irish TV and radio for their connection to IRA militants and were a decade away from their first seat.

On Sunday the former political wing of the IRA (Irish Republican Army), a party with the ultimate aim of reuniting Ireland and Northern Ireland, looked near to completing its long journey to the top table of Irish politics.

Early results indicated it had stunned the political establishment by securing the most votes in the national election. The left-wing nationalist party said it had earned a place in government with reluctant rivals that had for decades treated it as a pariah.

For O Snodaigh, the result was the culmination of decades of hard work to painstakingly build an image separate from the IRA's 30-year campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland, a conflict in which about 3,600 people were killed before a 1998 peace deal.

"Sinn Fein is around a long time, it has policies on every issue but we were pigeon-holed at the time and we were also censored by the media so it made it very difficult to grow," the 55-year-old lawmaker told Reuters as he was re-elected in the working-class area of Dublin South-Central.

"Politics has now moved on, society has moved on."

Under new leader Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein has been transformed into a socially progressive, liberal party with a slick social-media machine and one of the youngest voter bases in the country.

The Sinn Fein showing in the election would have been an unimaginable prospect as recently as 2007 when they won just four of 166 seats.

"I knocked on hundreds and hundreds of doors during the campaign and I can't think of a situation where somebody really brought up the past," said Oisin Dolan, 33, one of many jubilant Sinn Fein supporters at Dublin's RDS count centre.

"People want to talk to you about what's going on in their lives, what's keeping them up at night and not things that happened 20 or 30 years ago before some people were born,," said Dolan, who joined the party in 2005. "They just want to talk about the future."

As some Irish tricolour flags were flown around the count centre - a nod to Sinn Fein's united Ireland ambition - O Snodaigh was left pinching himself.

"It was a slow build with many, many setbacks but I didn't think it would happen this soon," he said.

"I'm elated but the hard work starts now." (Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Pravin Char)