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By Padraic Halpin
ASHBOURNE, Ireland (Reuters) - Two years ago, Micheal Martin was shouted off the campaign trail. Now, in the very housing estates that suffered most when the economy crashed under his party's watch, he has being invited in for cups of tea.
Martin's Fianna Fail will this week fight it out with Prime Minister Enda Kenny's fellow centre-right Fine Gael in a by-election that will show the limited appetite in bailed-out Ireland for the type of populist political movements making inroads elsewhere in Europe.
As anger over austerity threatens mainstream parties in Italy and Greece, Fianna Fail, which dominated Irish politics before losing three-quarters of its seats in humbling elections held after an EU/IMF bailout, is regaining its popularity.
"I think people in Ireland want a way out of the crisis and they've become much more realistic about what can be done," Martin told Reuters while canvassing for his candidate in Ashbourne, a town 20 km north of Dublin where so-called "ghost estates" lie unfinished after a spectacular property crash.
"Politics is still at a low ebb but for Irish people the new politics is a politics that is not going to promise them the sun, the moon and the stars ... I think people appreciate the fact that we're not an anti-everything party."
Fianna Fail, which won just 20 seats to Fine Gael's 76 in the 2011 poll, has been gradually making up ground in opinion polls over the past year and last month passed Kenny's party in one survey for the first time in five years.
Martin has been quietly canvassing the country for months to try and shake off what many saw as a toxic brand, highlighted last year when former Prime Minister Bertie Ahern was asked to quit the party following a corruption tribunal.
That dogged local work has made a difference, the 52-year-old former teacher says, but so too has an apparent stalling in support for Sinn Fein, the only major party rallying against austerity cuts that have now become the norm in Ireland.
A poll on Sunday put Sinn Fein's support at 14 percent, 10 points behind Fianna Fail and down from a high of 21 percent less than a year ago.
WHO DO YOU PICK?
Wednesday's vote in the urbanised commuter towns that make up the Meath East constituency should be fertile ground for Sinn Fein, but the party and its leader Gerry Adams' one-time role as the political face of the Irish Republican Army troubles many.
"It's a case of who do you pick?" said plumber Pat Cleary, a father of two who voted for junior government party Labour last time around but is angry at having to pay a new property tax while broken pavements outside his house are left untended to.
"Sinn Fein are dying deaths because of Gerry Adams, every dog on the road knows that. And the government, they keep saying it's Fianna Fail's fault ... They're there now and it's up to them. That's why people are coming back to Fianna Fail."
With a record parliamentary majority, defeat this week would have little impact on the ruling coalition's plans to push ahead with more tax hikes and spending cuts as it looks to become the first euro zone country to exit a bailout later this year.
A poor Labour showing could make life difficult, but a win for its senior partner may also soften the blow. By running the daughter of the junior minister whose death led to the vacancy, Fine Gael are narrow bookmakers' favourites to take the seat.
Either way, the likely strong one-two finish for Ireland's traditional main parties suggests the government will not be sent a message to quickly veer away from a painful austerity path that has won praise from investors and European leaders.
"There is an innate conservatism in Irish people. You have what might be regarded as radical alternatives such as Sinn Fein doing reasonably well but not as well as they should be," said Eoin O'Malley, politics lecturer in Dublin City University.
"Most Irish people tend to be centrist or centre-right on the economy and not necessarily socialist so maybe they're just left with Fianna Fail."
(Editing by Jon Hemming)