When the new president of Sinn Fein took the podium at a recent political rally, she acknowledged she’ll never fully replace her predecessor and mentor.
“The truth is, my friends, I won’t fill Gerry’s shoes,” Mary Lou McDonald told a crowd in Belfast last month. “But the news is that I brought my own.”
She was referring to Gerry Adams, an Irish political heavyweight who recently retired after almost 35 years as leader of Sinn Fein, a political party that campaigns for a united Ireland. Critics see Sinn Fein as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary organization that waged a long guerrilla campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland.
Over three decades, some 3,500 people were killed in Northern Ireland’s sectarian bloodshed, known as the Troubles. Adams had long refused to condemn IRA bombings and shootings. But he eventually rejected armed struggle, and helped broker the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement.
Now, 20 years into that peace, Sinn Fein’s newly elected leader has stepped into the spotlight. McDonald, 48, was barely a teenager during the height of the Troubles and comes without some of the baggage from that era. Supporters say she represents a fresh phase in the party’s evolution.
She ran unopposed and took control Feb. 10 of a party that has long been a bit of an old boys’ club.
“I listened to a chorus of mainly men, and mainly older men, mansplaining my job to me on the public airwaves,” McDonald told an Irish late-night TV show. “I have a problem with people who have never run for public office, or who have never been in politics, telling me how to do my job or assuming I wouldn’t be capable.”
McDonald’s vice president is also a woman: Michelle O’Neill, 40. It’s the first time the top two leaders of Sinn Fein have been women. The party has only had one other female president in its history: Margaret Buckley, elected in 1937.
While Adams, 69, and his deputy, the late Martin McGuinness, were hard-scrabble, working-class fighters from British-ruled Northern Ireland, McDonald is from a middle-class family. She went to private school. Most importantly, she’s from the south — the Republic of Ireland. And her ascension reflects a change in Sinn Fein strategy, says Pat Leahy, political editor of The Irish Times.
“The locus of Sinn Fein’s priorities is no longer in Belfast. It’s in the south of Ireland. It’s in Dublin,” Leahy says.
Sinn Fein’s aim is to win power on both sides of the border, he says, and its goal is to eventually unite the north with the Republic of Ireland.
In the north, the party is supposed to share power with unionists, in accordance with the Good Friday Peace Agreement. But governance has been stalled in Belfast for the past 13 months, after a breakdown in talks between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party. In the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein has the third-largest number of seats in Parliament, and the party hopes that McDonald can help boost that, Leahy says.
McDonald first became a household name in Ireland in 2004, when she was elected as Sinn Fein’s first delegate to the European Parliament.
“Nobody had ever heard of her, but she was so different! Southern, young, female, and speaking with a distinctive Dublin middle-class accent that was so, so different to the public face of Sinn Fein,” Leahy recalls. “If you go into any pub in Dublin and ask about ‘Mary Lou,’ people will know exactly who you’re talking about.”
NPR went to one such pub, on the campus of Trinity College Dublin, McDonald’s alma mater. The elite university is filled with the sort of young, progressive voters Sinn Fein hopes to attract with McDonald at its helm.
But one Catholic student there, Grace Farrell, who is from Northern Ireland and has voted for Sinn Fein in the past, says she blames the party for sowing animosity between Catholics and Protestants in her home region. She says she worries the party is trying to boost its appeal, by naming a younger woman as leader, without really changing its sectarian stance.
“It’s catering to what they think we want,” says Farrell, 20. “But growing up, I didn’t meet one Protestant. I didn’t meet one unionist. If you aren’t exposed to those people, you’re going to have prejudices. I think that made me and all my friends disillusioned. A lot of my friends don’t vote.”
Her friends include Susie Crawford, 21, who is also from the north, but from a Protestant family. She says it’ll take more than a woman at the helm to get her to vote for Sinn Fein.
“Whenever you have female leaders, if they’re in these super-old and bigoted and awful parties, it doesn’t mean they’re good people because they’re ladies,” Crawford says. “And I love ladies! I’m a feminist.”
Crawford says she’s more concerned about candidates’ policies than gender. After all, the U.K., Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are all currently led by women. It’s no longer a novelty to see women in power, she says.
McDonald supports center-left policies she says will foster equality and boost social services. She wants to end Ireland’s abortion ban, and she also campaigned for legalizing same-sex marriage, which was endorsed in a nationwide referendum in May 2015. Ireland plans to hold another referendum this spring, on legalizing abortion.
Those social issues may resonate with the younger generation of which McDonald is a member. But overall, many voters believe McDonald, who served as Adams’ deputy leader, will stick to the Sinn Fein party line. One called her “Gerry Adams in a skirt.”
“She has to do two very different things: one is to reassure the old, largely male vanguard that they’re not being abandoned and that their struggle, as they would call it, is being honored,” says Fintan O’Toole, an Irish Times columnist and a visiting scholar at Princeton University. “On the other hand, she has to appeal to an electorate that does not vote for Sinn Fein because it does not want to give support to the IRA.”
It will soon become clear how well McDonald, the first Sinn Fein leader to take control of the party in peacetime, will strike that balance. Her biggest challenge may be to get voters to focus on Sinn Fein’s policies, rather than its controversial history.