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Return to direct rule in Northern Ireland 'inevitable', says DUP's Sammy Wilson

The senior DUP MP hits out at Sinn Fein - and says his party will not allow Arlene Foster to stand down.

A return to direct rule in Northern Ireland is “inevitable” and there is “no chance” that negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Fein will produce a functioning executive within the three week deadline set by ministers, according to the senior DUP MP Sammy Wilson.

In an interview with the New Statesman, Wilson accused Sinn Fein – who won just one seat fewer than the DUP in last month’s snap assembly election – of being uncommitted to Northern Ireland’s devolution settlement, arguing the republicans’ red lines indicate they have no intention of forming a new executive.

Sinn Fein cut short power-sharing talks last week, having criticised Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire’s approach as “waffle, waffle, and more waffle”. Further cross-party talks reportedly collapsed moments before they were slated to resume on Tuesday night.

Wilson’s admission that talks at Stormont look destined for failure come days after Brokenshire threatened parties with the prospect of a third election in the space of twelve months should talks end in deadlock. Though Brokenshire maintains he is “not contemplating anything other than a return to devolved government”, East Antrim MP Wilson said Sinn Fein’s insistence that DUP leader Arlene Foster step aside made a deal between the two parties virtually impossible. 

“There is no chance of a settlement in three weeks,” he said. “The government has then got to make a decision: do they extend the talks period for a while or do they simply accept the inevitable and impose direct rule? I don’t think they can afford to extend the talks period for too long.”

While Sinn Fein have stipulated that they will not return to government while the scandal-hit Foster is still in post, Wilson said his party would “not allow” the former first minister to resign – and went on to claim Sinn Fein’s insistence that she did so revealed it was angling for a return to direct rule. “That kind of attitude is symptomatic where they are about devolution,” he said. “I don’t believe they’re serious about making devolution work again.

“They’re never going to say they want direct rule publicly, but the conditions they’ve laid down are an indication that they’re trying to ensure that they can blame any recriminations from their electorate on Arlene Foster.”

He added: “The one thing I am absolutely sure of is that no party is going to allow another party – and especially not a party which has sought to demonise their leader – to decide who their leader and ministers are going to be. Politicians should never accede to a demand from their opponents to rule someone out for a certain position and we will not do that.”

Wilson, a former Stormont finance minister, went on to say that Sinn Fein’s insistence on setting what were in his view unworkable red lines ahead of negotiations – chief among them Foster’s departure, an Irish language act and a new, independent body for dealing with outstanding Troubles cases – meant that the second election mooted by Brokenshire would exacerbate rather than resolve the impasse.

“I see no reason why Arlene would or should stand aside, and indeed I think it would be wrong for her to stand aside. But say she does: you’re still left with all of Sinn Fein’s other red lines,” he said. “The Irish language act, issues around the security forces and the past – all toxic in of themselves. Arlene stepping down would embolden them to push those issues as well. So it’ll be just as difficult – and perhaps even harder – to form an executive after a second election, especially if Sinn Fein’s vote goes down.”

With Sinn Fein running second in some polls in the Irish Republic - ahead of governing party Fine Gael - Wilson argued that a return to government in the North would undermine its anti-austerity platform. “I have no doubt that, since the elections in the Republic are in two years’ time, and because they’re riding quite high in the polls, they’re painting this picture of a promised land where you don’t have to make hard choices or have austerity. It’s convenient for them not to have to take decisions in Northern Ireland lest parties in the south point out they’re shutting hospitals, putting through a tough budget and compromising on Brexit – otherwise they’ll be branded hypocrites when they claim they’re against austerity in the republic and Gerry Adams would see his poll ratings slide very, very quickly." 

Wilson also predicted that in the event of a second election unionist parties would regain their overall majority at Stormont, which was lost for the first time in almost 100 years at last month’s election. Though the DUP’s election campaign has been much criticised in the press and by senior party figures including Ian Paisley Jr for its negative focus and relentless attacks on Sinn Fein, Wilson said the republicans’ approach to negotiations had vindicated his party’s decision and denied it had ran a “scare campaign", and accused the Northern Irish media of "hyping up" and "scandalising" the £500 million Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that brought the last executive down. 

“I don’t think the tactics were wrong,” he said. “We’d said that this was an election that was designed to bring Gerry Adams back onto the scene and that Sinn Fein had replaced Martin McGuinness with a puppet leader in the form of Michelle O’Neill – Gerry Adams was looking for someone who he could dominate. And that’s what’s happened subsequently, of course! Plenty of people have said that at press conferences she stands there like a nodding dog and he does all the talking, and the same is true of negotiations – he’s the one that’s taken the lead there.”

Wilson added he was yet to detect any open or private dissent against the DUP’s embattled leader, who on Saturday said her party was "not quite there yet" on whether it would nominate her for first minister. “Even if there were people who wanted that, I think they know that in the hothouse political climate in which we live at present that would cut your throat politically anyway,” he said. “If anything, people have been so incensed by the way that Arlene has been treated throughout the election and the unfair way that she and our position has been portrayed. We are even more determined to ensure she doesn’t step down.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA