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First Female Leader Of Sinn Féin Looks At Fresh Start For Party

Mary Lou McDonald acknowledges the applause of delegates after she was elected as Sinn Fein's president at the party's special conference in Dublin on Saturday.

Mary Lou McDonald was elected the new leader of Sinn Féin at a conference in Dublin on Saturday, in what represents a major shift for the left-wing Irish republican party.

In a first, the party's leadership is entirely female; McDonald is the only woman to have led Sinn Féin, which was founded in the early 1900s. Another woman, Michelle O'Neill, was elected as vice president Saturday. Both women ran unopposed.

McDonald replaces Gerry Adams who announced his intention to step down late last year. The 69-year-old's 35-year-tenure partly spanned what is known as the Troubles; a period of discord and bloodshed relating to British rule in Northern Ireland. Majority-protestant unionists wanted Northern Ireland to remain with the United Kingdom, while majority-Catholic nationalists wanted it to be part of the Republic of Ireland. Both sides are blamed for the violence, which saw more than 3,500 people die and 50,000 people injured over the past three decades of the 20th century, says the BBC.

With no direct connection to the Troubles, 48-year-old McDonald is seen as a fresh start for the party.

"We must only agree that the past is never again repeated," she said in a speech Saturday, as quoted by The Associated Press. "On other things, we can agree to disagree. The poet Maya Angelou put it well: 'History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But if faced with courage, need not be lived again.' "

McDonald takes over from a divisive leader; on the one hand Adams was part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that saw the end to the sectarian violence through a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. But others say he was far from a peacemaker and defended killings by the Irish Republican Army, believed to be responsible for 1,700 deaths during the Troubles, reports the BBC.

Sinn Féin is among the top political parties in Ireland as well as Northern Ireland. But its association with the Troubles has prevented it from gaining more popularity among voters, reports the AP.

In her speech Saturday, McDonald said with the party's new leadership, it was time to bring "innovative and modern ways of advancing our politics," reports The Guardian.

McDonald said the party would campaign for abortion rights in Ireland's referendum set for later this year.

She also maintained Sinn Féin's opposition to border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as part of a Brexit deal. While the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, the Republic of Ireland remains part of the E.U. and the question of what to do with its border to the north has been a sticking point in negotiations, as it has sparked fears of reawakening old tensions.

But The Irish Times notes McDonald struck a more conciliatory tone toward the E.U. than the party has used in the past.

"The European project has the potential to transform the lives of citizens for the better, but it can only do so if the social agenda becomes its driving force," she said.

One thing that has not changed, McDonald said, is a core principle of the party: a united Ireland.

"We are the generation of republicans who will see the rising of the moon," she said. "Sinn Féin in government, both North and South. Irish unity in our time."

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