WHEN you've fought a bloody war for 25 years, you learn a thing or two about how to grind your opponents down.
As recently as 2009, the political wing of the IRA was suffering from defections in the Republic and appeared to be going nowhere fast. Now they have dramatically increased their number of TDs to around 15 seats -- and, more importantly, have a realistic ambition to become the leading party of opposition in the next Dail.
How did this happen? The banking bailout and unemployment crisis created a massive wave of anger that the Shinners cynically surfed, promising to treat the IMF with about as much respect as they treated Ulster unionists. It was populist nonsense, but it undeniably had an emotional appeal -- and since Gerry Adams knew he was never going to be in power anyway, he was free to make as many wild promises as he liked.
Sinn Fein's performance was still patchier than it should have been. They barely increased their vote in Dublin, which caused them to miss out on seats they expected to win. However, the election of several TDs in Munster is a massive boost and should go some way towards changing their image of a party that usually speaks with a thick Ulster accent.
So as the Shinners relish their new-found position of strength, what will their tactics be?
Item one is to destroy Fianna Fail, just as they destroyed the SDLP up north. They are now just a handful of seats behind Micheal Martin's party and going in the right direction.
They have the added bonus of a strong left-wing message to deploy against the new Fine Gael-Labour government, in stark contrast to FF, who apparently have no idea what they stand for any more.
The 31st Dail will also be full of maverick socialists, who share Sinn Fein's economic philosophy. We could be looking at the emergence of a powerful left-wing group.
One thing is for certain -- the leader of that new party will not be Gerry Adams. The campaign exposed once again his ignorance of economics and his feeble denials about involvement in IRA atrocities.
At some stage over the next couple of years he will hand over to a younger TD, either the Donegal poster boy Pearse Doherty or the steely Mary Lou McDonald, who has the big advantage of a base in Dublin.
The Shinners may also be tempted to put up a candidate for the presidential election, particularly as the next president will preside over the centenary of the Easter Rising outside the GPO in 2016.
As the British government learned to its cost, Gerry and the Peacemakers are masters of playing the long game. With this election, they have taken a small but significant step towards their destination.
It is now up to every true democrat in the new Dail to watch the Shinners like hawks -- because if recent history has taught us anything, it's that they know how to fight dirty.