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Rise in female MLAs good for an Assembly that's suffered from excess of testosterone and tribalism

Arlene Foster is impressive, but she still needs to be held to account by an effective Opposition that contains some equally tough women, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Published 09/05/2016

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster

My historian father had a horror of closed minds. Prior to every election, before deciding which candidates to vote for, he read every word of the party manifestos. But in his last few years, having come to the conclusion that men had made a mess of everything, he voted almost exclusively for women.

I've some sympathy with that view.

Although nothing would make me support a sexist outfit like the Women's Equality Party, who want political quotas and other kinds of special protection, all things being equal, I'll vote for a woman.

Apart from anything else, I think my gender is less inclined than the other to follow the herd.

Look at Margaret Thatcher.

Institutions benefit from a decent mix of all sorts of people, and politics in Northern Ireland suffered for all too many years from an excess of testosterone as well as tribalism.

Roaring bigots and murderous paramilitaries combined to destroy the happiness of tens of thousands.

So there is much to celebrate in an election result that ups the number of female MLAs from 20 to 30.

Despite attempts to represent her as a Robinson puppet, Arlene Foster has already shown herself to be her own woman.

Like my Fermanagh friends, she is courteous, down-to-earth and tough.

It was not easy to take on such a difficult job, flanked by a Deputy First Minister so publicly urbane and privately ruthless as Martin McGuinness.

Well used to being patronised by male politicians, Mrs Foster made it blindingly clear to him early on that she was to be treated with respect.

In February, just a few weeks after taking office, she told Spotlight bluntly that their relationship was difficult.

"If you talk to Martin McGuinness now, he will say that unionists aren't the enemy, the enemy is poverty, the enemy is unemployment."

That was fine, she said.

"But it doesn't take away from the fact that he thought it appropriate to speak at Seamus McElwain's funeral - a man who had been responsible for murdering many people in Co Fermanagh," she added.

She would, however, work with the Deputy First Minister because "the past is the past".

"What I want to do is to build a future that everybody in Northern Ireland can ascribe to."

I also appreciated the way she addressed some fatuous remarks made by President Michael D Higgins at a Dublin symposium on Easter Monday.

"While the long shadow cast by what has been called the Troubles in Northern Ireland has led to a scrutiny of the Irish republican tradition of physical violence, a similar review of supremacist and militarist imperialism remains to be fully achieved," he said.

Poppycock.

Ever since I went to live in England I've heard and read endless criticism of British imperialism, while it is comparatively recent in Ireland that there has been much challenge to the traditional Most Oppressed People Ever (MOPE) view of Irish nationalist history.

And, as Gerry Adams demonstrated so clearly last week in Django-gate, there are still intellectual dinosaurs in positions of influence.

Mrs Foster dealt crisply with Mr Higgins.

"I think he needs to re-examine what he is saying," because, for a lot of us, the legacy of 1916 has been continued violence," she said.

She didn't stop there.

Responding to the President's description of the leaders of 1916 as "selfless women and men", she said sharply that "a lot of them were egotistical (and) were doing it to bring glory upon themselves".

"They had no democratic backing."

She added that the signatories of the Irish Proclamation had no legitimacy and "weren't speaking for anybody but themselves".

You mess with Mrs Foster at your peril.

I hope, though, that there will be plenty of people at Stormont to scrutinise her, her party and the Executive.

People like Jenny Palmer, who had the guts to stand up to the Robinson regime and who, under the UUP banner, has been rewarded by the electorate.

I regret the loss of the maverick free-thinking John McCallister and hope that Alliance, UUP and SDLP have the courage to use his legacy to become an effective Opposition.

Jim Allister - even if augmented by People Before Profit's Eamonn McCann - can't do it all on his own.

They need to recruit some tough women.

Belfast Telegraph

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