Belfast Telegraph

RHI scandal: Was Arlene Foster right to raise the issue of misogyny in her attack on the barrage of criticism?

We talk to women politicians from across the spectrum about sexism in public life and their views on the First Minister’s comments

By Claire O'Boyle and Jonathan Bell

Women from across Northern Ireland's political spectrum agree misogyny still rears its ugly head - but most said that First Minister Arlene Foster was wrong to play the sexism card in the 'cash for ash' row.

Alliance leader Naomi Long led the criticism, saying claims that calls for Mrs Foster to step aside were because of her gender were "absolutely wrong" and a "distraction tactic".

DUP Assembly Member Emma Little Pengelly, however, said her party leader had been forced to endure a campaign of "personal and nasty" criticism.

Mrs Foster told the Belfast Telegraph yesterday that comments on social media had been "horrific", and she was worried about the impact they were having on her children.

But East Belfast MLA Mrs Long said she wanted Mrs Foster to step aside in order to resolve the Renewable Heat Incentive crisis - not because she was a woman.

She said: "We have asked the First Minister to step aside without prejudice so that we can investigate, move on, restore confidence and get to the bottom of this. If that investigation vindicates Arlene, then she comes back stronger. And if it raises more issues, then she will have to deal with that.

"But this is not misogynistic. It was the same for Peter Robinson. He voluntarily stood aside to allow for an investigation into what was a much smaller amount of money and came back.

"This is not about misogyny, it is simply about accountability."

Mrs Long told Radio Ulster's Stephen Nolan show that Mrs Foster did a "disservice to women by playing the misogyny and sexist card".

"To suggest we hold women to a lesser standard than to our male counterparts would be misogynistic. One thing that Arlene and I agree on is that woman should be treated equal to men," she added.

Ms Little Pengelly was also asked if her party leader was playing the gender card to deflect attention from her role in the scandal.

"Absolutely not. I think anybody looking at this story, especially over the Christmas break and on social media, can see how personal and nasty the criticism and the campaign against Arlene Foster has been," she said.

"I have seen things on Facebook and Twitter and other platforms, there's no doubt at all that there is underlying misogyny involved." Asked if she could identify any misogyny from her political opponents, Ms Little Pengelly said: "It's important to listen to what Arlene Foster said about this. She had commented that much of the criticism had been relentless, it had been very personal and very nasty.

"Indeed, that some of it had misogynistic undertones."

However, SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie said the issue of misogyny "has been thrown in by the First Minister as a pure distraction".

"The bottom line is at least £490m of ratepayers' money has been squandered. That issue has to be addressed and the only way it can be is with an independent public, judge-led inquiry and for the First Minister to step aside while that is carried out. Confidence in the political system has to be restored due to the conduct of the First Minister and the DUP," she said.

"I recognise that not only does misogyny happen in politics, but it happens in life in Northern Ireland. But that is not the issue in this case.

"Personally, I have not come across misogyny. I have found in my own case that you get where you are in life and in politics through hard work and merit, although I do know it exists. However, in this case the First Minister has thrown it into the debate as a spanner in the works to deflect criticism from herself and the DUP."

Ulster Unionist MLA Jenny Palmer said the comments did no favours for victims of misogyny.

"Arlene Foster's claims do a great disservice to any woman who has been subjected to misogyny in political life," she said.

"I am disappointed that Mrs Foster did not display the same concern for me or my children when I was subjected to deeply personal attacks.

"I know exactly what it is like to be the victim of personal attacks for daring to stick your head above the parapet. That is not the same as being held accountable for your actions.

"Arlene Foster can continue to scramble around and point the finger at everyone else, but that will not deflect from the fact that her fingerprints are all over the RHI debacle. It's just the latest ham-fisted attempt by the First Minister to reshape the debate and pivot away from the valid questions being asked of her."

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill said it was "not an orange and green issue, or a gender issue".

"This is about a financial scandal which has the potential to cost the public purse hundreds of millions of pounds."

TUV councillor Jolene Bunting said she had not heard anyone mention the First Minister's gender throughout the RHI scandal.

"If I'd heard anything like that, I'd be the first to condemn it," she said.

"But I have not heard a word like that. As far as I'm concerned this is a tactic to deflect attention from what's really going on. Politics has been a male-dominated world for a long time so I know some women can find it intimidating. But Arlene was wrong to bring this issue up here."

The number of female MLAs rose to 30 out of 108 in last year's election, up from 20 in 2011. Sinn Fein has by far the most female MLAs with 10. The DUP is second with eight women at Stormont, followed by the UUP with four.

The SDLP and Alliance have three women each, while the Green Party's Claire Bailey and Independent Justice Minister Claire Sugden bring the number up to 30.

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