Belfast Telegraph

Foster and O'Neill: They've made political history ... but up to now Northern Ireland's female leaders haven't exactly bonded

By Allan Preston

Northern Ireland's two largest parties both have female leaders for the first time in history - but any hopes of sisterhood across the sectarian divide have mostly been in vain.

To date, images of Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neil standing awkwardly together have rarely suggested warmth, and the leadership of both women has seen them preside over Stormont stalemate this year.

Most famously, the DUP leader became embroiled in a sexism row this year when she characterised Ms O'Neill in an interview as "blonde". Mrs O'Neill retorted that there could be no place for sexism in public life.

This followed Mrs O'Neill's combative start as Sinn Fein's Stormont leader, just as the 'cash for ash' scandal hit fever pitch, where she immediately demanded Mrs Foster should step down.

Compared to the famous 'Chuckle Brothers' image cultivated by the Iate Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, for many it was impossible to even imagine Mrs Foster and Mrs O'Neill sharing a joke let alone a joint political office.

Despite the tetchiness and barbs, an unexpected olive branch between the two at Martin McGuinness' funeral briefly hinted at the potential for mutual respect.

Mrs Foster's very presence at a former IRA commander's funeral was significant, given that her own father had survived an IRA murder bid. After being applauded on her way into church, an appreciative Mrs O'Neill returned the gesture by reaching out for a spontaneous handshake.

Smiles also emerged when the two women met then US president Barack Obama in 2013 before the G8 summit here - although that was long before both women became party leaders.

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