Mary Lou McDonald was confirmed as the new president of Sinn Fein on Saturday, taking over from Gerry Adams in a handover that could advance the nationalist party’s ambition of governing on both sides of the Irish border.
The election of a woman from a younger generation, who had no direct involvement in the 30-year Northern Irish conflict, represents a considerable break with the past for the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
McDonald, 48, a Dublin-born politician from a middle class background, was the only lawmaker to put her name forward to succeed Adams, who led the left-wing party since 1983 when the new leader was just 14 years of age.
“The war is over,” McDonald told party members in a speech in which she quoted American poet and civil rights champion Maya Angelou and praised Adams as a “political giant”.
“Now as a new generation takes the reins of leadership, our job is to bring innovative and modern ways of advancing our politics. Now is the time for fresh thinking and bold ideas.”
McDonald, who was a member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2009 when she became Adams’ number two, wants to build on the progress made over the past two decades since the Northern Irish troubles ended.
Adams, who has always denied being a member of the IRA but for many was seen as the face of its bloody war against British rule brought to an end by a 1998 peace deal, is credited with transforming the party into a political force across the island it ultimately wants to unite.
Sinn Fein has shared power in the British province of Northern Ireland since 2007 and is in talks to restore devolved government there, but it has never governed in the Republic where it has established itself as the third largest party.
McDonald could oversee the party’s return to power in Belfast as soon as next week and will seek to enter government at elections in the south expected within the next 12 months.
But she takes over following a series of resignations and suspensions that have posed questions about the party’s professionalism.
Recent surveys suggest some sceptical voters would be more willing to vote for Sinn Fein under McDonald than Adams, who played a low key role on Saturday and did not address members.
“The new leader will attract a different vote. There are people who love or hate Gerry Adams and I think Mary Lou will bring more neutral people to the party. We have to progress and she’s part of our progression,” Michael Gallagher, a 62-year-old councillor from county Meath told Reuters from the floor of the convention.
“I think the new leadership will change the culture of the party. We could have difficulties in the North trying to hold our people together … (but) she will increase the electoral possibilities in the South.”