Sinn Fein last night denied that Gerry Adams might be prepared to step down as party leader in the run-up to the General Election, despite mounting speculation.
Sources say Mr Adams (68) is considering stepping aside as he continues to be linked to IRA-related controversies.
There are also Sinn Fein TDs and others who privately feel it is time for change. The party has cancelled its Ard Fheis next month and there has been growing speculation among republicans in Belfast that Mr Adams is about to announce that he is stepping aside to allow the 'softer' face of Sinn Fein to emerge.
But a Sinn Fein spokesman said last night: "Gerry Adams will be contesting the next election as leader of Sinn Fein to represent the people of Louth and to lead a progressive government to deliver a fair recovery."
Adams is seen by an increasing number of members of his own party in the Republic as a liability to the party's electoral hopes, according to republican and security sources.
While the likely candidate to replace him here is party vice-president Mary Lou McDonald, sources close to the party also say the relatively little-known Donegal Sinn Fein man, Pat Doherty, is also a possible replacement should Adams decide to officially 'retire'.
Sources say, however, it would be more likely that Mary Lou McDonald would become the leading face of Sinn Fein until an official leadership contest was held at a party conference after the general election.
Doherty preceded Ms McDonald as vice-president for 11 years. But despite a relatively low-key political existence in the North, he is said to be one of the key leadership figures in the 'republican movement'.
Doherty was named in the 1998 libel case, taken by Thomas 'Slab' Murphy against Times Newspapers, as a member of the IRA leadership by former 'Southern Command' leader and Garda informant, Sean O'Callaghan. Doherty served as Sinn Fein vice-president from 1988 to 2009.
Despite living in Donegal, he has been repeatedly returned as Sinn Fein MP and Assembly member for the West Tyrone constituency where he still serves.
Ms McDonald, by contrast, has no links with the IRA though she has loyally supported Adams throughout all the controversies linked to his past involvement in the terrorist organisation.
The continued existence of the IRA became a significant issue over the last two years following Mairia Cahill's revelations about the IRA's protection of rapists and sexual abusers within its ranks. This was followed by the murders of Belfast IRA leader Gerard 'Jock' Davison in Belfast in May last year and the murder of another former IRA man, Kevin McGuigan.
The PSNI blamed the IRA and the continued existence of the IRA, and its 'Army Council' leadership was confirmed by an independent security review team set up by the British Government. None of the IRA council members is involved in Sinn Fein in the Republic.
Recent controversies related to the Sinn Fein leader's past date from the conviction of his paedophile brother, Liam (60), who last year lost an appeal against a 15-year sentence for the rape of his eldest daughter, Aine, between 1977 and 1981.
In evidence, Gerry Adams admitted he was told about the abuse but did not contact police. This was followed by Mairia Cahill's revelations that her own rape, and the rape and abuse of other victims of IRA paedophiles and rapists, was the subject of an extensive and organised IRA cover up.
The IRA's links to organised crime along the Border and particularly the massive profits being generated by cigarette and fuel smuggling with its legacy of dangerous environmental pollution was another thorn in the party's fside last year. Republican and security sources have told the Sunday Independent that Adams is planning to step aside for fear that any further IRA-related controversies will damage Sinn Fein's prospects in the coming general election. If the party vote was substantially damaged and its IRA links were to blame, this could potentially cause irreversible damage to the party's prospects of involvement in any coalition government.
Last night a Sinn Fein spokesman said: "Gerry Adams will be contesting the next election as leader of Sinn Fein to represent the people of Louth and to lead a progressive government to deliver a fair recovery, end the chaos in health and housing and promote Irish unity."
However, after holding the party leadership for 33 years, Adams's continued role is also a bar to coalition because of the distaste which other political parties hold for him.
One source also said that it could suit Adams's longer-term objectives significantly to step down either before or after the election as this could leave him in a position where he could run for President in two years' time.
The job of President is said this would suit Adams as it would allow him to travel around the world and build his 'legacy' reputation.