In the nearly 20 years since the 1998 Good Friday Agreements brought peace to Northern Ireland, the long-time political leader of Ulster’s Republican movement Gerry Adams is stepping aside after his successor was elected at a party congress on February 10.
The election of Mary Lou McDonald marks a major shift for the left-wing Irish Republican party. McDonald is only the second woman to have led Sinn Fein since it’s founding as an illegal, underground party more than a century ago. She is backed by her vice-president, Michelle O’Neill, making the two the only all-female, 1-2 combo, from a major political party in Europe.
Adams steps down after 35 years at the helm of Sinn Fein, a period of time that saw an upsurge in violence that pitted Northern Ireland’s republican Catholics, who wanted unification with the rest of Ireland and the pro-UK unionist Protestants.
While Adams was the head of Sinn Fein during the landmark peace accords two decades ago, critics he was far from a peacemaker and was a staunch defender of Sinn Fein’s armed militant wing, the terrorist group known as the Irish Republican Army – the IRA.
Long accused of being a member of the IRA, Adams has always maintained that he acted politically on behalf of the terrorist organisation but was never a part of its operations. Adams remains a deeply divisive figure for many in Belfast, many of whom see him as the face of the sectarian bloodletting that killed nearly 4,000 people from the 1960s-1990s – a period known locally as “the Troubles”.
Adams cut his teeth in politics as a young Irish Republican activist jailed by the British authorities at the height of the violence in the 1970s. He used his time in prison to cultivate a loyal following of other like-minded Catholics who would later help him transform Sinn Fein into a legitimate legal political party.
Despite his earning his bona fides as a deft political operator, Adams’ murky paramilitary past has hindered his ability to gain any sort of mandate outside of Sinn Fein’s core constituency.
In handing over the party reins to McDonald, Adams is ceding power to a new generation of Sinn Fein leaders who are stained by their past relationship with the IRA.
Speaking on Saturday, McDonald said with the party’s new leadership, it was time to bring “innovative and modern ways of advancing our politics,” reported The Guardian. McDonald also struck a very conciliatory tone toward the EU – a major break with Sinn Fein’s traditional anti-internationalist, anti-globalist past.
“The European project has the potential to transform the lives of citizens for the better, but it can only do so if a social agenda can become its driving force,” she said.
McDonald also reiterated Sinn Fein’s opposition to border controls between Northern Ireland and Ireland as part of a Brexit deal. While the majority of British subjects vote to leave the European Union, Northern Ireland voted in favour of staying in the bloc. Under McDonald, Sinn Fein will continue to support close ties with the south that would include maintaining a so-called “soft border” with EU-member Ireland, with an eye on the party’s core platform – unification.
“We are the generation of Republicans who will see the rising of the moon,” she said. “Sinn Fein in government, both North and South, Irish unity in our time,” said McDonald.