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Forget about stupid sexism, we have a huge epidemic of domestic abuse on our hands

Wild reactions to low-level misogyny distract from the real problem in our midst, says Fionola Meredith

There's been a lot of frenzied talk about sexism lately. First of all there was Arlene Foster's controversial claim that calls for her to stand down over the RHI scheme were "misogynistic". More recently, we had the backlash against remarks made by DUP councillor Graham Craig about Belfast City Council's chief executive Suzanne Wylie looking tasty on her bicycle. And now we're back with Mrs Foster again, and the burning question of whether she was being sexist when she described Sinn Fein's northern leader Michelle O'Neill as "blonde".

Suddenly it seems more urgent than the frightening length of hospital waiting lists, or the dire challenges facing our impoverished, unstable education sector.

Has Northern Ireland had a feminist revolution while I was looking the other way?

No fear.

To my ears, these loud, super-sanctimonious claims and counter-claims of sexism or misogyny are not motivated by true concern for women's status as free and equal citizens. Instead, they are all about crude political point-scoring and moral one-upmanship. Any dumb blonde could see that, right?

But there's a danger in inflating stupid, throwaway comments to the level of serious outrage. It makes us forget what real, thorough-going, destructive misogyny looks like.

For instance, when Mr Craig publicly shared his personal frisson of pleasure about the council chief executive on her bike - a mistake for which he later apologised - political opponents described Craig's remarks as "dehumanising", "absolutely horrific" and "vile".

I said at the time that these words were wildly excessive for such a trivial instance of stupid sexism. Disproportionate language like this leaves you with nowhere to go, nothing more to say, when confronted with truly misogynist crimes.

This week, Connie Leonard, a champion accordion player from Maguiresbridge in Co Fermanagh was murdered by her former partner, Peadar Phair. Connie's son, Conor, who has Down's syndrome, was stabbed by Phair as he tried to save his mum. It is understood that Phair then killed himself.

No words can express the horror and squalor of such a situation. Murder-suicides, where a man kills his partner or former partner, are relatively rare. But they do happen, and they represent the tragic endpoint of an epidemic of domestic violence in Northern Ireland. Have you seen the figures? They are atrocious.

According to the most recent police statistics, there were 29,166 domestic abuse incidents recorded in 2016/17, which is 2.7% higher than the 2015/16 figure of 28,392 and the highest level recorded since the data began to be collected in 2004/05. The 2016/17 figure is 39.2% higher than the level first recorded in 2004/05.

Delve down into the statistics, and the picture only gets darker. There were 13,933 domestic abuse crimes recorded in 2016/17, which is the second highest level since 2004/05. There were three murders with a domestic abuse motivation in 2016/17, compared with one in 2015/16.

And now we have the snuffing out of Connie Leonard's life too, as well as the unspeakable harm done to her much-loved son.

These physical and psychological attacks on women and children - and sometimes men too, though much less frequently - are going on right under noses. They are rife in our communities, and they cut across all classes and creeds. It's vital to remember that behind each one of those statistics is a real, living human being who is hurt and terrified. They are not just numbers on a page.

So if we're suddenly so keen to sniff out and expose instances of misogyny, why are not we talking about this hateful, brutal abuse? When these systematic, sustained campaigns of personal terror are ongoing, why are we wasting our time getting involved in pantomime battles about the colour of female politicians' hair?

Hearing about the terrible death of Connie Leonard reminded me of Clodagh Hawe, who was killed along with her three children by her husband, Alan, in an apparent murder-suicide in Co Cavan in 2016. Remarkably, all five were buried together. Clodagh's name was in the news again recently because Alan Hawe's body has at last been exhumed and removed from the cemetery, at the request of Clodagh's family.

Too often, we react with disbelief when a family man who, to the rest of the world, seems like the archetypal decent, genial, hard-working fella, turns out to be an abuser. Was it this kind of thinking that contributed to a man who butchered his wife and children being buried alongside them?

Domestic abuse is dehumanising, vile, absolutely horrific.

When it comes to misogyny, it's time to get both our words and our priorities right.

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