11 February 2018
A day of excitement and energy at the Special Ard Fheis
"The delegates from across the country did not have to be told that they were witnessing history, and that a new chapter in the road to the republic had begun, they could see it for themselves."
Thousands of republicans gathered in Dublin's RDS on Saturday for an historic special Ard Fheis to elect a new party president and vice president.
For most in the large crowd, such an Ard Fheis was something of a new venture, particularly the huge numbers of young Sinn Féin members from across the country who were there.
Few had ever been involved in the election of a new Uachtarán, with the last such Ard Fheis taking place in 1983, before many of the crowd were even born.
So to say there was a certain degree of excitement in the RDS would be something of an understatement.
Many of those who attended on Saturday were also in the same venue less than three months ago when Gerry Adams announced in his last presidential address that he would be stepping down as party president.
This time they had come to elect a new leader, Mary Lou McDonald.
From early morning the crowd began to build as delegates filed into the hall, claiming their seats to watch history be made. They knew this would not be like any Ard Fheis they had attended before. This was different.
It began with Martina Anderson, who had served as election agent for Mary Lou McDonald, and fellow MEP, Lynn Boylan, telling the crowd how the elections would work and how the day would unfold.
Before the elections took place, however, 14 year-old Cara McGuinness, granddaughter of the late Martin McGuinness, sang a beautiful and poignant rendition of 'Song for Ireland,' - a favourite of her late grandfather in front of the huge audience and the tens of thousands watching it being streamed live online around the world. No one could have doubted the heart-felt emotion in her excellent performance.
The first matter of the day was the election of Sinn Féin Vice President with Michelle O'Neill the only candidate when nominations closed a week earlier. Conor Murphy proposed Michelle O'Neill for the position and Liadh Ní Riada seconded it and the nomination was unanimously endorsed by delegates in the packed hall.
As Michelle O'Neill took to the stage for her first speech as Vice President she was greeted with huge applause and cheering from the cavernous hall.
While a familiar figure to all in the hall, the proud Tyrone native surprised many in the crowd with the revelation in her speech that she was, in fact, born in Fermoy in Cork.
The large media pack in the hall pored over every word in her speech for a clue about the ongoing talks at Stormont amid speculation that a deal is imminent. The new Sinn Féin deputy leader made it clear to them that she believes a resolution to the outstanding issues can be found and that the talks are likely to conclude by the end of next week.
Her confidence, determination and powerful speech enthused the crowd, and set the tone for the rest of the day.
Following a short musical interlude from singer, Ryan Sheridan, the main business of the day, the election of a new Uchatrán Shinn Féin got underway.
North Belfast's John Finucane proposed Mary Lou McDonald for the position and his nomination was seconded by Louise O'Reilly TD before the delegated universally backed the Dublin Central TD for the party's top job.
Amid all the talk of bringing her own shoes to the role, Mary Lou McDonald strode onto the stage to a thunderous welcome from the more than two and a half thousand party members crammed into the hall.
In her first presidential address, she set out her vision for the future - a confident and assured roadmap to unity.
The delegates from across the country did not have to be told that they were witnessing history, and that a new chapter in the road to the republic had begun, they could see it for themselves.
At the end of the speech, amid the huge standing ovation, Michelle O'Neill joined Mary Lou McDonald onstage, flanked by party representatives from north and south. It was clear that this was the beginning of a new era for Sinn Féin - a dynamic and vibrant era, with a new leadership, to build on the huge progress already made.
As the crowd rose to sing Óró Sé do Bheatha Abhaile and Amhrán na bhFiann it was obvious that there was a new energy in the hall, and a determination to get behind the new party leadership to go out and bring about the new Ireland they had just heard about in the speeches.
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An initiative for dialogue
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Contributions from key figures in the churches, academia and wider civic society as well as senior republican figures