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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.

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How the Lib Dems learned to love all-women shortlists

Yes, the sitting Lib Dem MPs are mostly white, middle-aged middle class men. But the party's not taking any chances. 

I can’t tell you who’ll be the Lib Dem candidate in Southport on 8 June, but I do know one thing about them. As they’re replacing a sitting Lib Dem (John Pugh is retiring) - they’ll be female.

The same is true in many of our top 20 target seats, including places like Lewes (Kelly-Marie Blundell), Yeovil (Daisy Benson), Thornbury and Yate (Clare Young), and Sutton and Cheam (Amna Ahmad). There was air punching in Lib Dem offices all over the country on Tuesday when it was announced Jo Swinson was standing again in East Dunbartonshire.

And while every current Lib Dem constituency MP will get showered with love and attention in the campaign, one will get rather more attention than most - it’s no coincidence that Tim Farron’s first stop of the campaign was in Richmond Park, standing side by side with Sarah Olney.

How so?

Because the party membership took a long look at itself after the 2015 election - and a rather longer look at the eight white, middle-aged middle class men (sorry chaps) who now formed the Parliamentary party and said - "we’ve really got to sort this out".

And so after decades of prevarication, we put a policy in place to deliberately increase the diversity of candidates.

Quietly, over the last two years, the Liberal Democrats have been putting candidates into place in key target constituencies . There were more than 300 in total before this week’s general election call, and many of them have been there for a year or more. And they’ve been selected under new procedures adopted at Lib Dem Spring Conference in 2016, designed to deliberately promote the diversity of candidates in winnable seats

This includes mandating all-women shortlists when selecting candidates who are replacing sitting MPs, similar rules in our strongest electoral regions. In our top 10 per cent of constituencies, there is a requirement that at least two candidates are shortlisted from underrepresented groups on every list. We became the first party to reserve spaces on the shortlists of winnable seats for underrepresented candidates including women, BAME, LGBT+ and disabled candidates

It’s not going to be perfect - the hugely welcome return of Lib Dem grandees like Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Julian Huppert to their old stomping grounds will strengthen the party but not our gender imbalance. But excluding those former MPs coming back to the fray, every top 20 target constituency bar one has to date selected a female candidate.

Equality (together with liberty and community) is one of the three key values framed in the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution. It’s a relief that after this election, the Liberal Democratic party in the Commons will reflect that aspiration rather better than it has done in the past.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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