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Mary Lou McDonald takes over as Sinn Fein leader

The 48-year-old succeeds Gerry Adams, who led the Irish nationalist party for nearly 35 years.

Mary Lou McDonald

Mary Lou McDonald has been confirmed as the new leader of the Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, which wants to unite Britain's Northern Ireland with the republic to the south.

Some 2,000 delegates gathered on Saturday in Ireland's capital, Dublin, to attend a special conference and see McDonald succeed Gerry Adams, a controversial figure who led the party for almost 35 years.

In her first speech as party leader, the 48-year-old promised new ideas and vowed to lead Sinn Fein to "realise our ambition of government north and south ... and ultimately to win Irish unity".

Sinn Fein is "the only party that will build a united Ireland," but it must adapt to achieve its target of doubling the size of its membership, she said, according to published remarks.

'Adams, my political mentor'

McDonald is the first woman to lead Sinn Fein, as well as the party's first head with no direct connection to decades of sectarian violence, known as The Troubles.

Adams, who became leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), in 1983, announced his intention to quit the role in November.

He has always denied of being an IRA member - but others have disputed this.

The 69-year-old Adams was a key figure in the peace process that resulted in the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the creation of a power-sharing government between Northern Ireland's pro-British and republican factions.

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

Al Jazeera's Nadim Baba, reporting from the meeting in Dublin, said McDonald stressed that she was "continuing on the footsteps of Adams and the late Martin McGuinness who, she said, did so much about the island of Ireland, bringing about the peace process, but also so much for the party".

During her speech, McDonald, a former member of the European Parliament, also sent out a warning to the British government, saying there could be no hard border after the UK leaves the European Union. 

"Brexit represents a real threat to our prosperity, to the economic, social and political life of Ireland. It fundamentally challenges 20 years of hard won progress," she said.

In his final comments before stepping down, Adams said he believed "the future is bright" for the island of Ireland, despite a year-long impasse in power sharing between Sinn Fein and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party.

"Fifty years ago when I joined Sinn Fein, it was a banned party," he said on Friday.

"The nationalist people of the north had been abandoned and were subject to discrimination and inequality.

We were on our knees. We are now off our knees. We have a Good Friday Agreement," Adams said.

"It is in some difficulty at this time, but it offers the way forward."

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