Belfast Telegraph

RHI scandal: Arlene Foster is tough but she's not immune to horrific online abuse

By Mairia Cahill

I have little in common politically with Arlene Foster. From abortion, to marriage equality, it's hard at times to find anything we would agree on, though I met her briefly after the Assembly debate on my case in 2014, and I appreciated the kindness she showed me on that occasion.

My views on the RHI debacle have been put on record. I happen not to agree with the DUP's (or Sinn Fein's) handling of this issue, and favour an inquiry to get much sought answers and accountability.

Nor do I believe that she is the target of criticism from other political parties simply because of her gender.

Legitimate criticism is par for the course in politics, and some of it has been warranted. However, when it comes to recent online treatment of Arlene Foster, she is perfectly correct in her assertion that some of the social media commentary has been "horrific". A five second search of Twitter brings up everything from the usual disgusting adjectives used to describe women, to a crude cartoon of her depicted in the nude with an orange sash around her neck, to a wall mural which depicted her as a green witch. Foster is not immune to having feelings and expressed those yesterday.

In many ways, she can't win. When she became First Minister, she was lauded by commentators for her no-nonsense approach. That same style has drawn criticism recently, where she has been described in some quarters as "arrogant and bullish". Yesterday was one of the few occasions that she referred to the impact the last few weeks have had on her and she was slammed for it. As she stated herself, she is "not a robot, but a human being". She is entitled to those feelings.

Martin McGuinness' use of the almost paternalistic term "friendly advice", while calling for her to step aside was patronising in tone. The word "hysterical", used on radio by another politician to describe her statement yesterday, is an adjective rarely applied to male politicians.

A regular political commentator who shall remain nameless, save I give him any more publicity, recently made a joke on social media at her expense which referred to her as a "girl". Yet, her assertion that some of the criticism of her was misogynistic in tone, was dismissed out of hand by most, almost immediately.

Comments by social media trolls about her appearance, her gender and use of words - like b*****, c*** and witch - are undoubtedly misogynistic. It was notable, but depressing, that other politicians who are normally strong when it comes to calling out sexism, turned on Arlene Foster instead.

She was accused of "playing the sexism and misogyny card" by Alliance leader Naomi Long. That statement was disappointing, and isn't exactly encouraging for any other female in the public sphere to voice concerns about similar treatment in future. Green Party MLA Claire Bailey issued an entire statement, referring to "a terrible attempt to detract from her … role in the RHI fiasco", and attacking Foster's record on gender equality. Not once did she challenge any of the abusive content that Foster has been subjected to.

Arlene Foster is a woman. She is no less a woman for being a conservative woman, or for raising the issue. Coming from a party which doesn't have a great track record on social justice or women's rights issues, does not make her any less a victim of gutter-type social media posters, and nor does members of her own party displaying a less than exemplary track record themselves over the years towards some women, make her any less entitled to raise her own experience of the issue. She is also a politician. Like others, being one makes her a target for inhumane commentary at times. Stating that she would not want her mother or daughter affected by it does not weaken her, as some have claimed - but the response to her is a reminder that sometimes, there is selectivity, depending on who the target is.

It's either sexist or it isn't. There should be no middle ground.

Let's get to the bottom of the RHI fiasco, but let's also not debase ourselves by dismissing the First Minister's experience out of hand. To do so grants licence for unacceptable aspects of treatment towards her to continue.

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