The UK’s leading beard advocacy group has hailed SDLP leader Colum Eastwood’s striking new facial hair as evidence of a growing acceptance of the hirsute cheek in Northern Ireland politics.
The Beard Liberation front (BLF), which describes itself as “the informal network of beard wearers”, welcomed the Foyle MLA’s bristling new look as part of a wider cross-party move by male politicians, who no longer feel that a beard is perceived as an electoral vulnerability.
The formerly clean-shaven young SDLP leader’s facial hair first made a public appearance at the end of last month, but came to Province-wide prominence when he appeared on BBC One politics programme The View on Thursday night.
Labour veteran Frank Dobson was famously told by party strategists that he should shave off his beard to bolster his attempts to get elected London Mayor in 2000.
At the time, Mr Dobson was told that “men with beards are regarded as untrustworthy” and that a clean-shaven look could make him more politically attractive to both women and younger voters. Mr Dobson refused and went on to lose.
When devolution was restored in 2007, just two of the Province’s political leaders had beards – Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and Alliance leader David Ford.
Now they have been joined by Steven Agnew of the Green Party and Mr Eastwood, while DUP Economy Minister Simon Hamilton has also cast aside his razor.
Mr Eastwood’s beard, which includes a distinctive white patch on the chin, has heartened Keith Flett, the long-standing London-based organiser of the BLF.
Mr Flett welcomed the growth of beards at Stormont. He said that Mr Eastwood “joins a wider trend towards a more hirsute politics with former Tory Minister Michael Gove appearing with a beard in August and even Ukip’s Nigel Farage briefly sporting a moustache”.
Mr Flett – who was an outspoken critic of what he saw as New Labour’s obsession with a clean-shaven image – told the News Letter: “We back diversity of political image and that of course includes beards.
“Colum Eastwood’s organic beard further underlines that you don’t have to be a clean shaven man in a suit to be a successful politician.”
In 2007, two Ulster University design lecturers, Christopher Murphy and Nicklas Persson, publicly urged politicians to “court the bearded vote”.
The academics, who organised a Belfast beard-growing competition, said that politicians needed to wake up to the growing “bearded vote...right across the political divide”.