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Arlene Foster's 'blonde' Michelle O'Neill interview: DUP leader talks sexism, misogyny, appearance and Twitter trolls

By Niamh Horan

DUP leader Arlene Foster still remembers the terrible dread that began to lodge in the pit of her stomach at the age of seven. She had been born into a happy, contented family and her first years were idyllic, growing up on a farm in the rolling hills of Co Fermanagh.

But gradually she recognised the encroaching threat of violence. "The first time I really became aware was when we children of police officers had our Christmas parties. I remember the Christmas before my father was shot - the tension in the car on the way home."

When the family car drove through a staunch Republican area, she recalls: "It was almost as if there was a sigh of relief once we passed safely. That was the Christmas just before my father was shot."

Her worst fears came true when violence exploded in the kitchen of her family home. Shortly after 9pm, her father John went to shut his livestock in for the night when two IRA men opened fire.

Forty years later, sitting outside a small cafe in Hillsborough, Co Down, in her mind's eye, Arlene can still see her mother freeze at the sound of gunshots. Her father crawled into the house, blood flowing from his wounds.

He told them to "get down!", and the family, including Arlene's 85-year-old grandmother and four-year-old brother, fled upstairs to retrieve emergency flares.

Her father survived, despite having been hit in the head, and in the weeks that followed, two images haunted her. The pock-marks on her father's face, from shrapnel that had ricocheted off the wall and cut his cheeks; and her mother's hair, which had turned white from shock.

"I can't remember my mother ever crying. She internalises a lot of things," says Arlene, "and I think that's how it manifested itself. Her hair turned white."

The incident ripped the young girl from the lush green countryside where "doors were always open" and, under an emergency protection scheme, the family were moved to a "two-up, two-down" council house in Belfast. Each night Arlene remembers "pulling the covers right over my head, so no one would know I was there if they came to get me".

At 17, the horror of the conflict visited Arlene once more on what should have been a routine bus ride to school. The driver was a part-time member of the UDR; the IRA planted a bomb under the bus.

"Being generous," she says, "[It] was meant to go off when he opened up the bus for the morning when none of us children were on it, but at the time there was about 14 or 15 of us in there. That was a horrific experience."

At the journey's start, she asked her friend if she could sit at the window to sleep. The friend obliged and sat in the aisle seat. The bomb blast hit the friend, leaving her badly injured in hospital. By then in her teens, Arlene was old enough to understand what happened.

Were you angry?

"Yeah. There is no point on saying otherwise. You become very bitter," she says. "That's what paramilitarisation does to people... it's part of their raison d'etre - to divide."

Looking back on the ambush of her father, the most difficult part to accept was that "some of the people locally must have known" her father was going to be shot. "That was the hardest thing for Daddy to take. They had lived there all his life. It was that betrayal that was the toughest."

She says that in recent weeks, her decision to attend the funeral of Martin McGuinness took a lot of "soul searching". McGuinness had made an oration at the funeral of the man who had tried to murder her father. Arlene was met with applause when she walked into the church.

Do you forgive McGuinness for making that oration - and do you forgive the man who tried to kill your father?

"You have to ask for forgiveness and there's never been any of that in terms of McGuinness, or, indeed, any of the Republican movement," she replies.

Does someone have to ask for forgiveness? Or can you give it freely, knowing it will probably benefit you more than the other person?

"I certainly haven't forgiven it. I haven't forgotten it," she says, "But the way I deal with is it to say, 'right, what do I want for Northern Ireland? What do I want for my children? Do I want them to live in the bitterness of the 1970s and 80s or do we actually try to create a shared society in Northern Ireland?'"

Would you have entered politics if the attack on your father had never happened and you had stayed on the farm? "I don't know. This is always the question."

Arlene qualified as a solicitor from Queens University, Belfast before becoming heavily involved in the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and, eventually, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), where she quickly rose through the ranks. She married a police officer, Brian - a brother of her sister Julie's husband - and although the couple are very strong, he stays out of politics and the public eye, given his profession.

The couple have three children: Sarah, George and Ben. She returned to work three months after the first baby arrived, several weeks after the second, and when her youngest child was born, she was back to work within a week. "People say to me, and I do laugh at this, 'Oh your poor wee children!', and I think they think they are being supportive," she laughs. "My children have had wonderful opportunities as a result of their mother being who she is."

But the job has also brought her family a lot of pain, most notably during the recent "cash for ash" controversy. Set up in 2012, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Scheme, the non-domestic element of which was designed to encourage firms, businesses and farmers to switch from fossil-fuel heating to biomass systems such as wood-burning boilers, eventually earned the nickname 'burn as you earn'. The scheme was perceived to be flawed because there was no limit on usage and subsidies were over-generous. It will reportedly cost taxpayers £490m. The criticism hit her like a tsunami.

She cites the BBC's The Nolan Show which, she says, "For 56 days" ran the story "like judge, jury and executioner" before any investigation had been run.

"It was quite oppressive, it really was. Only for my family, my children, Brian and my faith, which played a big part - and for ordinary people - like we are sitting here in this coffee shop and somebody would come up to me and say 'I am praying for you Arlene, don't give in' [and resign]." She says this is what got her through.

With the benefit of hindsight, she acknowledges "we could have dealt with things differently".

What one thing would you do differently now? "Getting people to understand about the money that was being talked about. It has not been spent, but was actually a projection 20 years in the future. A lot of people today are of the opinion that the figure of £490m has already been spent by the government, when that is not the case. So explanations were needed and unfortunately, the way it was reported, that didn't come out."

Now she says: "I am quite confident that the £490-odd million, or whatever it was, will not come to fruition, and we will remain within the amount that has been allocated to us from Westminster."

What about people saying you used cries of misogyny as 'a shameless excuse' against the criticism?

She says she was speaking about "the social media reaction to everything that was going on at that time. Nobody looking at my Twitter feed or social media could say that there wasn't misogyny".

She describes the onslaught as "horrific". "It was particularly bad for [my daughter] Sarah who has just turned 17. She is a pretty strong, independent girl, like her mother, but there were tears. That was very tough."

She explains: "Of course, when you are a female politician your appearance is always under scrutiny [but] some of things that have been said about my appearances, 'Is she really a man?', you know, that's pretty hard to take when you are the daughter of that person.

"In December and January it just got so bad that my Twitter account is now [operated by someone else.] It is still me tweeting, but I don't look at it. I took it off my phone."

The fact that you needed to delete the Twitter app, how did it make you feel seeing the abuse?

"Your self-worth is very low."

Later, she points out: "There is a lot of talk, particularly in Northern Ireland, around mental-health issues and how people should respect mental-health issues. There was precious little thought given to my mental health from those people who really had their foot on my neck during that time."

On comedian Tommy Tiernan's controversial joke, which suggested if she wasn't a politician she would be a farmer (the BBC later apologised), the DUP leader says: "It wasn't funny, that's the reality; it was just really very coarse." She also took the opportunity to hit out at the "cosmopolitan east-coast snobbery" in Northern Irish politics, which she believes sometimes looks down on people who are from a rural background.

She is now in the throes of another election and the challenge of Brexit is ever present.

Arlene is particularly strong on implementing a plan, given that she has already been working with British Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Enda Kenny to find "innovative" solutions that "will work for both of us", including "the use of new technology" to create a soft border.

In last year's tussle, her party focused on a "vote Arlene" tactic rather than "vote DUP". The personality-driven campaign worked well with the party holding its 38 seats. Now the main fight that has enthralled commentators has been characterised primarily as "Arlene versus [Sinn Fein's] Michelle". So her thoughts on the woman from the main opposition party are worth exploration.

I quote a recent article by columnist Newton Emerson on Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams's attitude towards Michelle O'Neill. Emerson suggests that O'Neill is almost a political puppet for the men above her. He writes: "Adams frequently speaks for her at press conferences, patronisingly asks if she has anything to add and even refers to her as 'missus'."

When I put this to Arlene, she says there is no doubt that O'Neill was "hand-picked" by Adams and McGuinness, and that Adams is "back in control and was very much visible and that is very much the case in the negotiations and indeed the press conferences".

On the subject of her political opposition, I suggest that we play a word-association game.

Gerry Adams?

"He has a very strange personality. It affects all this cultural stuff and poetry, so he wouldn't be someone who I understand very well because he is not the norm of people who I would meet on an every day basis." (She describes his Twitter feed as "very weird.")

Mary Lou McDonald? "I don't really know her, I've only met her on a very small number of occasions."

What do you make of her on those few occasions that you met?

"She is quite standoffish. More so than Michelle O'Neill."

Michelle O'Neill, then?

She pauses for a moment, then laughs. A bold look on her face.

"I don't want to be sexist and I am not going to be sexist because I can't..."

Ah, go on," I say, "it's not sexist if it's true."

She smiles: "Blonde!"

I ask her to expand.

"Michelle is very attractive. She presents herself very well and she always is - you know - her appearance is always very 'the same'.

"You never see her without her make-up. You never see her without her hair [looking] 'perfect'."

Is appearance important in politics? "Oh god, yeah. It is for sure. And, I mean, she always looks so well and always presents herself in a particular way, I… sometimes you have a bad hair day and obviously that's the day that you are going to be photographed."

And do you think that it has an impact at the ballot box? "I do think even for men now [it matters]. If you look at William Hague and what happened to him with the baseball cap, Trump and the tie and the hair, I think image has become [important] - it's the age we live in."

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