MLA sorry for ‘she’s away shopping’ comment after gremlins force female politician off air at Stormont discussion on retail sector
An SDLP MLA has accused a DUP counterpart of sexism after he said she “must be away shopping” when a technical breakdown cut off her video-link at a Stormont meeting.
Foyle representative Sinead McLaughlin, a former chief executive of Derry Chamber of Commerce, said it was a “childish and unnecessary” comment from Gordon Dunne. She said he never would have made it about a male politician whose video-link suffered a glitch during a meeting.
The incident happened at an economy committee meeting on Wednesday. The North Down DUP MLA apologised to Ms McLaughlin on Friday and said it was never his intention to offend her.
Six MLAs — Mr Dunne and his DUP colleague Gary Middleton; Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd and Caoimhe Archibald; Alliance’s Stewart Dickson, and Ulster Unionist John Stewart — were present in Stormont for the meeting. Ms McLaughlin and independent MLA Claire Sugden joined it online.
The committee was questioning Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director Aodhan Connolly, who was also taking part by video-link.
When committee clerk Peter Hall asked “can we bring Sinead McLaughlin into the spotlight?”, and she didn’t appear, Mr Dunne said: “She’s away by the look of it... must be away shopping.”
When Ms McLaughlin’s video-link was restored she replied: “Didn’t go shopping yet, Gordon.”
She told the Belfast Telegraph: “I laughed Gordon Dunne’s remark off and tried to get back on course to the agenda, but inside I was furious.
“It was a childish and unnecessary comment.
“It would never have been said to a man whose video connection was disrupted.
“It was a very dismissive remark. That may not have been Gordon’s intention but such off-the-cuff comments, which are put-downs, are ingrained in our political culture.
“I was also no stranger to these type of put-downs over the years in business.”
Ms McLaughlin was co-opted into the Assembly in January to replace SDLP leader Colum Eastwood following his election to Westminster. She was chief executive of Derry Chamber of Commerce for eight years.
Mr Dunne phoned her to apologise today. He said: “This was an evidence session about supermarkets and retail. I made a joke when Sinead’s video connection dropped out that maybe she had gone shopping.
“It was not my intention to offend Sinead in any way. I have called Sinead to apologise directly and regret that any offence may have been caused.”
It follows a Belfast Telegraph survey this week which found that 70% of female MLAs had experienced sexist remarks made to their face by men during their political careers.
More than a quarter had been sexually harassed and 78% had experienced online sexism. A total of 27 of Stormont’s 32 female MLAs took part in the survey.
The Belfast Telegraph also asked Northern Ireland’s two female MPs who take their seats at Westminster — the DUP’s Carla Lockhart and the SDLP’s Claire Hanna — if they had experienced sexism.
Ms Hanna said: “I’ve only been attending the House of Commons a few months but definitely have a sense of a patronising, dismissive attitude from some MPs, particularly on the opposite (Tory) benches, who I suspect have made judgments on the basis of me being younger, a woman and Irish.
“Westminster seems to be trying to take this issue seriously. All MPs, peers and managers are requested to do an online course on valuing everyone.”
Ms Hanna said she was “fortunate not to be on the receiving end of overt sexism” at Stormont.
“I was reasonably established by the time I was elected, although I saw the negative attitude of some to other, particularly younger, women,” she added.
Ms Lockhart said: “A woman in politics works doubly hard to prove herself. Social media comments mean that you are very conscious of how you’re looking and what you’re wearing in a way that men never have to be.
“The DUP’s Westminster leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, has been very supportive of me. I’ve experienced no sexist remarks at Westminster, but there is still an undercurrent in politics that a woman can’t do it as well as a man.
“Things are changing and politics is becoming more accepting of women. It’s up to female politicians not to bow down to sexism and to trailblaze for other women.”
Meanwhile, former Women’s Coalition MLA Jane Morrice said she witnessed sexism at Stormont when she was deputy Speaker.
“I was always aware of movement when women MLAs rose to speak. Male MLAs would take a comfort break then. There just seemed to be less respect shown,” she said.
“When a woman politician walks into a room with a man, it’s automatically thought that she is his secretary. I spent 16 years representing Northern Ireland in the EU and I never saw a glimmer of the sexism there that I did here.”