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Foster caught up in sexism row with Sinn Fein over 'blonde' reference to rival O'Neill

By Noel McAdam

Arlene Foster has been accused of sexism after describing Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill as an attractive blonde who's never seen without her make-up.

In an interview with the Sunday Independent, Mrs Foster also argued that image had become very important "even for men now".

Sinn Fein last night insisted the DUP leader withdraw her "sexist and disparaging remarks" which it described as "totally unacceptable".

The DUP insisted no offence was intended, and said republicans had "a cheek" asking for an apology.

The row carries echoes of the spat sparked by Mrs Foster late last year when she claimed to have been the target of misogyny.

During the controversy over the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, Mrs Foster said repeated calls from Sinn Fein and others for her to stand down as First Minister were "misogynistic".

"There's a lot of it personal. There's a lot of it, sadly, misogynistic as well, because I'm a female, the first female leader of Northern Ireland," she said at the time.

Read more

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill: No place for sexism in public life 

Yesterday Mrs Foster repeated that no one looking at social media could say that there was no misogyny involved.

"It was particularly hard for (my daughter) Sarah, who has just turned 17. She is a pretty strong, independent girl, like her mother, but there were tears. That was very tough," she said.

During the interview, Mrs Foster at first appeared reluctant to make any comment about her Sinn Fein counterpart.

"I don't want to be sexist and I am not going to be sexist because I can't..." she said.

But journalist Niamh Horan interjected to say: "Ah, go on, it's not sexist if it's true."

"Blonde," Mrs Foster replied, and was then asked to expand.

"Michelle is very attractive. She presents herself very well and she always is, you know - her appearance is always very 'the same'.

"You never see her without her make-up. You never see her without her hair perfect."

Asked if appearance was important in politics, the DUP leader said: "Ah God, yeah. It is for sure. And, I mean, she always looks so well and always presents herself in a particular way.

"I... sometimes you have a bad hair day and obviously that's the day you are going to be photographed."

Mrs O'Neill's daughter Saoirse hit out at Mrs Foster on Twitter.

"Disgraceful Arlene, mummy has blonde hair yes, she also has class, smarts & strong leadership skills that empower the great women around her," she tweeted.

Sinn Fein MLA Elisha McCallion said: "The sexist and disparaging remarks made by Arlene Foster in relation to Michelle O'Neill are nothing short of disgraceful.

"It is totally unacceptable in the 21st century for a political leader to characterise another political leader based on the colour of their hair. The irony of talking about sexism and misogyny appears to be totally lost on Arlene Foster when she makes such remarks about others.

"For Arlene Foster to talk in such a disparaging manner about someone she supposedly wants to share power with once again highlights the DUP's lack of acceptance of the principles of equality, integrity and respect.

"Arlene Foster and the DUP need to immediately withdraw these offensive remarks which do a disservice to women in politics and to equality and respect."

And on Twitter, Sinn Fein MLA Megan Fearon posted: "Not surprising. DUP leader has never appeared to tackle sexism from her own party and there's few who haven't experienced it. Respect is key."

In response, the DUP said: "During a wide-ranging interview Arlene Foster was asked about Michelle O'Neill.

"Nothing that was said was offensive or intended to be so and Sinn Fein have a cheek demanding an apology. Indeed, they would be better served examining some of their own recent words and deeds and the impact they have had on people in Northern Ireland."

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