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Tribalism will always trump gender here, so rise of Foster and O'Neill not dawn of new era

The two main parties in Northern Ireland may now be led by women, but don't expect politics to change

By Fionola Meredith

The leaders of unionism and republicanism in Northern Ireland are now both women. But does their gender make a difference?

It's a novelty, if nothing else. In a political environment dominated, more than most other legislatures, by ageing men in suits, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill relieve the masculine monotony.

Against the backdrop of a society ravaged by decades of extreme violence and still predicated on the implicit threat of violence - with all the macho swagger and bravado that goes with that - it's remarkable that two women have risen to the top.

In a country where you only need a few sparse wisps of grey hair and a ponderous set of jowls in order to be venerated as a man of wisdom, that takes real tenacity.

But surely nobody would be so foolish as to think that either Foster or O'Neill are harbingers of a new, more enlightened form of politics? The pair of them are as tough and inflexible as old boots. They have to be.

I've never bought the line peddled by some deluded feminists that women bring a special quality to political discourse simply by virtue of their gender, and that more women means better government. Fairer government, maybe, but not necessarily better.

Such a belief relies on the entirely erroneous assumption that women have certain innate qualities - that they are warmer, calmer, more nurturing, geared more towards consensus than conflict - which will transform public life.

Where's the evidence for that?

Neither does the presence of women in positions of political power mean that they will act on behalf of other women, promoting their rights. The continued absence of humane abortion legislation in Northern Ireland, despite our female First Minister, is testament to that failure.

Foster seemed to undergo a sudden feminist epiphany during the RHI scandal when she protested that calls for her to stand down were prompted by misogyny. There's no doubt that there were some horribly vicious attacks on Foster on social media. And I'm sure she's encountered plenty of sexism on her way to the top, not least from within her own party. For goodness sake, even Sammy Wilson's defence of his leader paid tribute to her ability to handle the pressure "along with all the domestic things she has to do".

But seeking to position herself as an unfairly maligned victim struck me and many others as a deeply cynical attempt to deflect legitimate criticism and scrutiny, and to direct blame for the RHI crisis elsewhere.

Gender equality isn't just a flag you wave when it's politically expedient and then ditch when the crisis is over. That's like joining a trade union only when you receive your redundancy papers.

The tweet sent by the DUP showing O'Neill peeking out of Gerry Adams' pocket, and the words 'New deputy, same problem', suggests that the party's brief flirtation with feminist rhetoric is over. Styling Sinn Fein's new Northern leader as a cute little puppet, witlessly in thrall to her powerful male masters, isn't exactly the full Germaine Greer, is it? It wouldn't be so quick to patronise O'Neill in this way if she was a man.

Much has been made of her status as a fresh, youthful 'clean-skin' - that distasteful term for somebody who was not directly involved in the conflict - and her ability to represent a new generation. But it's wrong to over-state this rather simplistic narrative. O'Neill may not have been a combatant, but she couldn't be more immersed in republican lore. Her family background provides the necessary 'pedigree', and she's clearly an ultra-faithful servant of party ideology. She may be a civilian, but she didn't just wander in off the street.

And while it's wrong to assume that because O'Neill is relatively young, blonde and a fan of sticky lip gloss she must automatically be a dupe of Adams and McGuinness, it is true that she is particularly close to the former Deputy First Minister, even to the extent of adopting some of his verbal mannerisms.

As Mr McGuinness rather chillingly noted, he hasn't gone away, and his influence - for good or ill - will continue to be felt.

With her support for the LGBT community, minority groups and women's rights, O'Neill is clearly positioning herself as a prime backer of progressive causes. She'll be seeking to build on the liberal credentials she gained when, as Health Minister, she quickly reversed the gay blood donation ban that had been maintained by three previous DUP ministers.

Yet, whatever their successes or failures, neither O'Neill nor Foster should be seen as champions for their sex.

Above all, they are tribal politicians, seeking a tribal vote, and that brute imperative will always trump gender.

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