Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster's remark was cack-handed, but sexism is closer to home than Michelle O'Neill will admit

Why there's none so blonde as those who will not see, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Given a chance to go back in time and erase something she's said in the past, Arlene Foster would surely be tempted to return to the day last week when she gave an interview to Dublin's Sunday Independent newspaper and, asked to describe her Sinn Fein counterpart Michelle O'Neill in one word, plumped for "blonde".

Republicans have barely been able to contain their delight ... sorry, dismay ... as they loudly accuse the former First Minister of being so sexist that she makes Sammy Wilson look like a founder member of the Women's Coalition (remember them?).

Arlene would be better off, though, skipping back to last December when she famously described criticism of her role in the Renewable Heating Initiative as sexist, too.

To be fair, she had a point. It only takes a moment on Twitter to find some ferociously nasty comments directed at Mrs Foster in recent months. If Sinn Fein really did care about the abuse meted out to women in public life, they could start by taking a harder line against Provo trolls who gleefully dish it out. Instead, they've effectively told Arlene Foster that she should take all this on the chin.

Unfortunately, she can hardly cry foul over the current tendency of the perpetually offended to throw around words such as "sexism", "racism", "bigotry", "homophobia", or whatever this week's catchphrase happens to be, when she did the same thing herself.

But someone certainly ought to, because it's not healthy to be held hostage by a bunch of thin-skinned, hypersensitive cry babies, constantly wailing about how their delicate feelings have been hurt by certain trigger words.

Arlene Foster's remark could only be called misogynistic if we accept that making any negative comment on a person's personal appearance is irrefutable evidence of an ingrained prejudice. Sometimes, it might well be. If the only word that comes to mind when you look at another person is "black", or "gay", or "Jewish", then you surely are guilty of reducing that person to a racial, or sexual, stereotype.

But does the word "blonde" really fit into the same category? That depends who's saying it. If it's a man known to have a derogatory attitude towards women, then it's probably fair enough to conclude he's being sexist.

It's about context. The real question, then, is what Arlene Foster meant when she said "blonde".

In saying blonde, wasn't she simply showing that she doesn't rate O'Neill very highly, either intellectually, or as person strong and independent enough to step out of the shadow of Gerry Adams, who always seems to be at her side at crucial moments, speaking for her?

That tendency led to a withering article on the satirical website Ulster Fry, which reported that, as a special treat for International Women's Day, Gerry intended to let Michelle get a word in edgeways for once.

Countering that damaging impression is entirely in O'Neill's hands.

After all, had Arlene been asked to describe Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald, or former culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin in one word, it's not their appearance that would first have come to mind.

If Michelle's blonde hair genuinely is all that's stuck in Arlene's mind after serving alongside her as ministers in previous administrations, it doesn't exactly suggest Sinn Fein's new chief at Stormont made much of an impression in other ways.

Can voters honestly say they know her either? Apart, that is, from O'Neill's fondness for attending IRA commemorations, and it's unlikely Sinn Fein would have been any happier if Arlene had highlighted that.

Politicians cannot afford to be indifferent to how they look. Even Jeremy Corbyn had to smarten himself up when he became Labour Party leader, because his former look of a man who slept in the back of a van en route between Marxist rallies would have been a liability, while President Trump is almost as well known for his ludicrous hair and orange skin as he is for his fondness for big walls.

Nor is there any point denying that the pressures on women are greater still. Even national leaders such as Prime Minister Theresa May, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are subjected to a level of physical scrutiny that no man in a similar position would have to endure.

At the same time, there are also certain politicians for whom appearance clearly matters more than others and it's not the slightest bit sexist to point out that Michelle O'Neill is one of them. In a busy schedule, she obviously takes considerable time and effort over her appearance.

That's what Arlene was picking up on when she said of the Tyrone woman: "Her appearance is always very 'the same'." That doesn't happen by accident. It takes work.

Whether the final result is pleasing to the eye is a matter of personal taste, but it's rather silly to go to all that effort to make an impression, only to feign outrage when the effect is noticed and commented upon.

The DUP leader should have been far more careful. She hesitated before answering the question, evidently aware that what she was about to say could be controversial, but she went ahead and said it anyway.

That speaks to a certain mischief in her, which isn't a terrible quality to have, but it does put her colleagues in an awkward position if they're frequently forced to come out and defend her.

She should have followed the wise old adage: "When in doubt, say nowt."

But Michelle O'Neill seems to expect some sort of sisterly solidarity from her DUP counterpart, just because they're both women.

It would be a cheap shot to ask where this spirit of feminist togetherness was when O'Neill went along with the plan to bring down the Executive at the very moment when Northern Ireland was being led for the first time in its history by a woman.

But it is worth wondering why, instead of criticising Arlene Foster for making a throwaway remark about their leader's hair, women in Sinn Fein aren't asking themselves why they still take their orders from bitter old men who are more than happy to bring down a functioning devolved Assembly just to build up pressure for a border poll that no one wants.

That's what's really offensive.

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