Mary Lou McDonald

Mary Lou McDonald

Illustration by Paul Ryding for POLITICO

Mary Lou McDonald has two things on her agenda: a Sinn Féin government in Dublin, and a united Ireland. The 49-year-old politician took over the leadership of her Irish republican party unopposed in February, replacing Gerry Adams, the bearded Belfast figure who had come to define the party over a 34-year leadership.

For many in Ireland, McDonald’s ascension represents not just a generational transition within Sinn Féin — but a break with a past in which the party served as the political arm of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the paramilitary organization that sought to end British rule in Northern Ireland through force.

Unlike Adams, Sinn Féin’s new leader does not have to deny in interview after interview that she was a member of the IRA. Her prominence in the successful toppling of a constitutional ban on abortion earlier this year also helped broaden her profile as a politician, and showed her ability to work in coalition as she argued on the same side and worked in tandem with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and opposition party Fianna Fáil’s leader Micheál Martin.

Since the Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Ireland 20 years ago, Sinn Féin has pursued unification through the ballot box, transforming itself into an all-island political force that is the dominant party among Irish nationalists in the north and the third-largest in the Dublin parliament.

Sinn Féin has put itself at the forefront of Ireland’s movements for social change, including the campaign to legalize gay marriage in 2015 and this year’s abortion campaign.

McDonald believes Brexit has put unification within reach — making a so-called border poll on the issue all but inevitable,

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