Mary Lou McDonald succeeds Gerry Adams as Sinn Féin leader

In her first speech as party leader, McDonald pledges to secure and win referendum on Irish unity

Gerry Adams has handed over the leadership of Sinn Féin to Mary Lou McDonald after 35 years as president.

More than 2,000 Sinn Féin delegates attended a special Ard Fheis conference in Dublin’s RDS arena on Saturday to see McDonald confirmed as Adams’ successor.

In her first speech as party president, McDonald said she wanted to secure and win a referendum on Irish unity. “I want us to achieve this with respect, graciousness and generosity. Irish unity cannot be a crude exercise of simply stitching north to south and returning to business as usual.”

She said that as a new generation took the reins of Sinn Féin leadership, it was time to bring “innovative and modern ways of advancing our politics”.

“Our focus must be on building Sinn Féin into an organisation that is fit for purpose, and our purpose is to win, to win elections, to increase our political strength, to realise our ambition of being in government north and south, to win progressive political victories every single day. And ultimately to win Irish unity.”

McDonald said Brexit represented a real threat to the prosperity, economic, social and political life of Ireland. “It fundamentally challenges 20 years of hard-won progress. There can be no imposition of a border on the island of Ireland. Ireland will not be the collateral damage in the political games and antics of Tories in London.”

Referring to the political crisis at Stormont, she insisted Sinn Féin was “up for a deal”. She said: “We are committed to real power-sharing, to working for agreement with our unionist partners. We want the assembly and executive up and running. This can only happen on the basis of equality, respect and integrity for all. The talks are ongoing. The Sinn Féin team is committed to a positive outcome.”

Paying tribute to Adams, McDonald said: “There would be no Good Friday agreement, no peace process without Gerry Adams. My political mentor. An inspirational leader. A great friend.

“When others said it was impossible, Gerry Adams, along with Martin McGuinness, John Hume and indeed others, bravely walked the path to peace.”

Adams said on the eve of the handover that he was confident McDonald would “make Sinn Féin even bigger and stronger”.

“We have made some progress but there are still considerable obstacles. But, as I said to our unionist friends, this is the last chance agreement,” he said.

McDonald inherits a party with growing support on both sides of the border but still under the shadow of the Provisional IRA’s 35-year campaign of violence.

Even though she had no personal connections to the Troubles in the north, McDonald has faced questions about the legitimacy of that IRA campaign. She also has to change the public image of a party many see as under top-down control, with more than 10 councillors in the Irish Republic resigning over the past few years after alleging they were bullied by the party’s internal apparatus.

Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin leader in the currently deadlocked Northern Ireland assembly, was elected party vice-president by delegates on Saturday.

Contributor

Henry McDonald Ireland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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