Getty
Show Hide image

There is sexism in Northern Irish politics, but Arlene Foster’s “misogyny” claim doesn’t ring true

While the First Minister supports criminalising sex workers, imprisoning women who have abortions and running all-male political campaigns, her defence sounds hollow.

A major political crisis has been quietly brewing in Northern Ireland, threatening political meltdown yet again. In a sign of how increasingly normalised post-Troubles politics in the region are becoming, the issue is not about power-sharing, religion or the constitutional question. Instead, it is embroiled in a plain old-fashioned expenses scandal.

Dubbed the “cash for ash” affair, it has emerged that a public project begun in 2012 has been mishandled and will cost the taxpayer more than £400m. The Renewable Heat Initiative was designed to encourage local businesses to use more eco-friendly heating and gave them a financial incentive to do so. However, it appears the project was badly orchestrated, with serious flaws from the outset. Businesses soon realised they could be paid to burn fuel pointlessly. One farmer was reportedly given £12m to needlessly heat a shed for 20 years.

Arlene Foster, Democratic Unionist leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, is the main focus of public ire. She was the minister in charge of the project at the time, and in a rare move for a political party built on fierce loyalty, her DUP colleague Jonathan Bell has spoken out against her. He has told local media that Foster ordered civil servants to expunge documents to make it look less like she was responsible for the mess.

Foster now faces calls from all sides to stand down as First Minister. She denies all wrongdoing and says she has been unfairly attacked. The scandal has been simmering since early December and is now escalating as opposition parties tabled a motion of no-confidence against her shortly before Christmas.

The respite afforded by the Christmas parliamentary recess has been short-lived and Sinn Fein is now floating the possibility of triggering an election in a bid to oust Foster and undermine her party while it is out of favour with public opinion.

Calls for her resignation show no sign of abating and Foster’s position is looking increasingly untenable. She has now told local media that calls for her to resign are “misogynistic” and that a man in her position would not be asked to do the same. She said: “A lot of it is personal, a lot of it sadly is misogynistic as well because I am a female – the first female leader of Northern Ireland – so I firmly believe that is the case as well.”

Politics in Northern Ireland is certainly rife with misogyny. Foster is the first female First Minister the region has ever had. Just 28 per cent of MLAs are female, compared to 43 per cent of elected politicians in Wales and 35 per cent in Scotland.

During the Westminster election, the Belfast Telegraph published an article by a male journalist critiquing election posters of candidates, which included rating women’s makeup, outfits, and whether they were showing too much “cleavage”. While it is difficult to imagine any mainstream publications publishing such an article elsewhere in the UK, it was dismissed in Northern Ireland as just a bit of fun.

However, while it is welcome that Foster is opening up discussions about sexism in Northern Irish politics, she appears to be using the accusations of misogyny here as no more than a mere smokescreen. Misspending £400m of public funds in a nation as small as Northern Ireland is a huge cost to the public purse. Similarly, allegedly ordering civil servants to tamper with documents to reduce the appearance of responsibility is a major accusation that must be investigated by an independent, fair and impartial inquiry.

In particular, it is especially curious to see a Democratic Unionist politician cite concerns about gender equality. The party is misogynistic to its core. As an evangelical Christian party that seeks to run Northern Ireland according to what it considers God’s own wishes, it has a consistent track record of oppressing women.

During peace talks leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, current MP Ian Paisley Jr drowned out the voices of women when discussing gendered violence and the conflict, by loudly moo-ing like a cow so they literally could not be heard.

At the 2015 general election, the party didn’t run a single female candidate for any of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies. When Foster became leader in January of last year, the party sought to reassure party members who may feel uneasy at the thought of a woman in charge by announcing that her “most important” job was “that of a wife, mother and daughter”.

The party is one of the many in Stormont upholding Northern Ireland’s abortion ban, which makes it a criminal offence to have a termination even in the case of incest, rape or fatal foetal abnormality. Belfast High Court ruled last year that it breaches international human rights laws, but the DUP and other parties voted to keep it anyway. MPs at Westminster could overturn it, but largely do not know or do not care, and so the ban has been kept in place, with a woman being prosecuted for having an abortion in April last year.

The party also recently criminalised sex work, not due to any concern about workers’ safety but a puritan Protestant logic that women must be saved from their own sins.

The DUP is also pro-austerity, an ideology that disproportionately harms women who are more likely to be in receipt of benefits or be on the poverty line.

So while it is welcome that Foster is opening up discussions about misogyny in Northern Ireland, the track record of both her party and her individually suggest it is little more than a desperate distraction technique. The major allegations of misspending are serious and deserve independent investigation. While she also supports criminalising sex workers, imprisoning women who have abortions and running all-male political campaigns, the concerns Foster has vocalised this week seem little more than a desperate and insincere attempt to cling to power.

NS
Show Hide image

Labour is condemned to watch helplessly as Theresa May consolidates power

The Zombie Party is too weak to win and too strong to die. 

Labour’s defeat to the Tories in the Copeland by-election in Cumbria, which the party had held for more than 80 years, is a humiliation for Jeremy Corbyn and his moribund party. This is the first time a governing party had gained a seat in a by-election since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives won Mitchum and Morden in 1982. 
 
The victorious candidate Trudy Harrison, who increased the Tories’ share of the vote in this former Labour “stronghold" by more than 8 percentage points, hailed the victory as “truly historic”, while Labour MP John Woodcock called it a “disaster”, and even the shadow chancellor and Corbyn ally, John McDonnell, conceded it was a “profound disappointment”. 
 
At a time in the electoral cycle when a credible opposition should be winning by-elections and riding high in the polls, Labour is in disarray: rejected, humiliated, ridiculed. It has all but collapsed in Scotland, where the Tory leader Ruth Davidson has emerged as the popular, unapologetic leader of Unionism. And in England the danger now is not that it will lose seats to Ukip — whose leader Paul Nuttall was rejected yesterday in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, which Labour held on a low turn-out after a dispiriting campaign — but to Theresa May’s Conservatives. 
 
The Copeland result was a vindication for Theresa May. When recently I interviewed her in Downing Street she had a simple message for Labour: we are coming after your voters – and she is. 
 
Because of its embrace of the radical left and internal divisions, May accused Labour of abandoning many of its traditional supporters. The party was not responding to their concerns on issues such as “the impact of immigration on lower income levels”.
 
True enough: Corbyn favours mass immigration and open borders yet is an economic protectionist – a classic Marxist position but electoral suicide in our new emerging post-liberal era in which populist movements are rising across Europe and an America First nationalist is in the White House.
 
“I hope there are Labour voters,” Theresa May told me, “out there who will now look at us afresh and say, ‘Labour hasn’t responded to our concerns, it hasn’t recognised what matters to us, but the Conservatives have seen that and are responding to it. I want our greater prosperity not to be confined to particular groups of people or a single part of the country.”
 
The polls suggest that more than simply disaffected Labour voters are looking at the Tories afresh, as we embark on the epic challenge of negotiating the Brexit settlement.
  
May believes that Brexit was not only a vote to leave the European Union but a demand for change from those people – many of them in places such as Copeland - who felt ignored and excluded from prosperity and greater opportunity.
 
Her vision is for a “Great Meritocracy” (whereas Corbyn’s is for a socialist republic) combining greater social justice with enhanced social mobility. It’s an intellectually fascinating and ambitious project and, if successful (and many doubt her, not least her own right wing), it has the potential to condemn Labour to electoral oblivion.
    
The collapse of the Labour party as a stable and credible political force is dismaying. Many of the party’s problems precede Corbyn, who is sincere and determined but is not a national leader. But then neither was Ed Miliband, who misunderstood the financial crisis, which he believed had created a “social democratic moment”, and misread the country he sought to govern. Miliband treated politics like an elevated Oxbridge PPE seminar and introduced the new rules by which the party elected its leader, disempowering MPs.
 
The distinguished Cambridge historian Robert Tombs has called the European Union a system of “managed discontents”. Something similar could be said of Corbyn’s Labour, except that its discontents are scarcely managed at all.

Most Labour MPs despise or are embarrassed by their leader. The MPs are divided and demoralised, with some pondering whether to follow Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reed (whose resignations created respectively the Stoke Central and Copeland by-elections) out of politics. The Corbynites are breaking up into factions (one hears talk of “hard” and “soft” Corbynites), and Corbyn himself is incapable of appealing to those who do not share his ideological convictions.
 
For now, the Labour leader retains the support of activists and members and, crucially, of Unite, Britain’s biggest union and the party’s paymaster. But even his friends must accept that he is leading the party in only one direction – into the abyss.
 
On the eve of the two by-elections, Corbyn posted a message on Facebook: “Whatever the results, the Labour Party – and our mass membership – must go further to break the failed political consensus, and win power to rebuild and transform Britain.”
 
The statement was received with derision on social media. The idea that Labour can win power any time soon (notwithstanding some black swan event) is magical thinking. Corbyn’s personal ratings among traditional working class semi-skilled and unskilled Labour voters are catastrophically poor. He appeals to students, affluent metropolitans with degrees, and minority groups. As for the majority of the electorate, forget it.
 
MPs are reluctant to challenge Jeremy Corbyn because they know any leadership contest would revitalize his leadership, as happened last summer when the Welsh MP Owen Smith mounted an ill-considered and doomed “coup”. Nor is there a pre-eminent candidate waiting in the shadows to strike, as Michael Heseltine was in the last years of the Thatcher administration.
 
So Labour will continue to be the Zombie Party: too weak to win but too strong to die. Its founding mission was to defend the labour interest and to create a fairer, more ethical society. But Labour has lost its role, its confidence and sense of purpose. Obsessed by identity liberalism, bewildered by Brexit and led by a radical socialist, Labour can only look on helplessly as the Tories start to win seats in its former heartlands and hunker down for another decade or more in power.

This column was originally published in the London Evening Standard.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.