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Mary Lou McDonald, new face of Ireland's Sinn Fein, takes reins

Paul Faith, AFP | Republican party Sinn Fein president-elect, Mary Lou McDonald, arrives at the Parliament Buildings on the Stormont Estate for talks aimed at restoring the Northern Ireland Executive, in Belfast on January 24, 2018.
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Mary Lou McDonald, who on Saturday becomes president of Ireland’s Sinn Fein republican movement, represents a break with the party’s past as the political voice of the IRA.


The 48-year-old mother-of-two faces a daunting task in following Gerry Adams, the charismatic figurehead of the left-wing party since 1983, and leading it into a new future one it hopes will see it topping elections either side of the Irish border.

McDonald said she grew up watching Adams, 69, on television and could not fill his shoes but would instead make her own mark.

“We together over the coming years will walk a journey that is full of opportunities, full of challenges, but I believe which marks a defining chapter in our achievement of a united Ireland and the ending of partition,” she said.

Unlike Adams, who grew up in the sectarian environment of Belfast, McDonald came from a wealthy background.

From an upper class neighbourhood in Dublin, she attended a private Catholic school before studying English literature, European integration and human resource management.

She worked in consultancy and research and was a member of the centre-right Fianna Fail party before leaving in 1998.

She first ran for Sinn Fein in 2002, standing unsuccessfully in Dublin West, but became the party’s first member of the European Parliament representing a seat in the Republic in 2004.

She became the party’s deputy in 2009 and in 2011 won a seat in the Irish parliament, representing Dublin Central.

Shadow of the IRA

Promoted by Adams over the years, she became his designated successor.

Other major figures in the party stood aside or lent her their support for the Sinn Fein leadership.

Martin McGuinness, a former commander in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) paramilitary group, was Adams’ closest Sinn Fein colleague and Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister from 2007 to 2017, shortly before his death.

His son Fiachra McGuinness said his father worked closely with McDonald and was a “huge admirer of her ideas, dedication and commitment.

“I value her friendship and believe that she is the ideal candidate to lead Sinn Fein into the future.”

The shadow of the now-defunct IRA still hangs over the party, which is trying to gain respectability through social action.

McDonald is outspoken on issues such as inequality and public services.

However, she is accused of following the traditional party line and being lenient towards the actions of the IRA.

Pro-British Unionists in Northern Ireland, plus political opponents in the Republic, have recently attacked her for not being tough enough on a Sinn Fein member of the British parliament who has quit over a video seen as making fun of a massacre of Protestant workers by Republican gunmen.

Sinn Fein’s primary objective is Irish reunification, bringing Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into the Republic of Ireland.

McDonald also wants to get Sinn Fein into government in Dublin, after decades of growth in the polls; something which some MPs and commentators thought was impossible with Adams as its frontman.


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