A New Leader For Ireland's Sinn Fein, But Will It Be A New Era? : Parallels Mary Lou McDonald represents a new generation and could appeal to a wider range of voters in Ireland — but critics warn she's still inextricably tied to many of her party's hard-line policies.
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A New Leader For Ireland's Sinn Fein, But Will It Be A New Era?

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A New Leader For Ireland's Sinn Fein, But Will It Be A New Era?

A New Leader For Ireland's Sinn Fein, But Will It Be A New Era?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/589106322/589802289" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's a new era for Sinn Fein. That's the political party that has fought for a united, independent Ireland. Sinn Fein had close ties to the Irish Republican Army during three decades of violence in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. Now the party has elected a new leader. Here's NPR's Lauren Frayer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Police have now confirmed that the IRA gunman...

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: For 35 years, Sinn Fein was led by Gerry Adams, who frequently refused to condemn shootings and bombings by the Irish Republican Army.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GERRY ADAMS: I will not condemn the IRA. The IRA is quite legitimate in its resistance to...

FRAYER: But eventually, Adams rejected armed struggle and helped broker the Good Friday peace agreement that ended the violence. Sinn Fein's new president, Mary Lou McDonald, says she can never replace such an important figure.

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MARY LOU MCDONALD: The truth is, my friends, I won't fill Gerry's shoes.

(LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: But the news is that I brought my own.

(CHEERING)

FRAYER: And they are very different shoes. Past Sinn Fein leaders have had working-class roots in British-ruled Northern Ireland. McDonald is from a middle-class family. She went to private school. And most importantly, she's from the South, the Republic of Ireland. And that reflects a change in Sinn Fein's strategy.

PAT LEAHY: The locus of Sinn Fein's priorities is no longer in Belfast. It's in the south of Ireland. It's in Dublin.

FRAYER: Pat Leahy, political editor of The Irish Times, says Sinn Fein wants to win power on both sides of the U.K.-Irish border in order to eventually unite Northern Ireland with the Republic. Leahy recalls when McDonald was first elected to the European Parliament in 2004.

LEAHY: Nobody had ever heard of her, but she was so different - Southern, young, female, speaking with her kind of distinctive Dublin middle-class accent that was so, so different to the public face of Sinn Fein.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULLS SQUAWKING)

FRAYER: Trinity College Dublin, McDonald's alma mater, is filled with the sort of young, educated voters Sinn Fein hopes to attract. But Grace Farrell, a Catholic student from the North who has voted for Sinn Fein, says she worries the party is trying to boost its appeal without really changing its sectarian stance.

GRACE FARRELL: Its catering to what they think we want. I grew up. I didn't meet one Protestant. I didn't meet one unionist. And if you aren't exposed to these people, then obviously, you're going to have prejudices. And, like, I think that made me and all my friends just disillusioned. A lot of my friends don't vote.

FRAYER: Friends like Susie Crawford, also from the North, but from a Protestant family. She says it'll take more than a female leader to get her to vote for Sinn Fein.

SUSIE CRAWFORD: Whenever you have female leaders, if they're in these super old and, like, bigoted and awful parties, it doesn't mean they're good people just because they're ladies. And I love ladies. I'm a feminist.

FRAYER: McDonald supports center-left policies - equality and social services. She wants to end Ireland's abortion ban, and she also supported legalizing same-sex marriage. But many voters think that on the big political issues, McDonald will stick to the Sinn Fein party line. One called her Gerry Adams in a skirt. That's McDonald's biggest challenge, says Grainne Maguire, an Irish social commentator.

GRAINNE MAGUIRE: Irish politics is very much tribal, who your grandparents voted for. And I think now, Mary Lou McDonald is part of a newer generation who came of age during the peace process, so she doesn't have any of that baggage.

FRAYER: She represents a new face of Sinn Fein, Maguire says, which wants now to be known for its policies rather than its controversial history.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Dublin.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOD IS AN ASTRONAUT'S "VETUS MEMORIA")

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