After a republican backlash over Arlene Foster’s description of Michelle O’Neill as “blonde” and “very attractive”, the DUP has dismissed Sinn Fein claims that their leader is sexist.
Mrs Foster made the comments – in which she praised her Sinn Fein rival’s appearance – during a ‘word association’ game as part of an interview published on Sunday.
In the lengthy interview with major Dublin-based newspaper The Sunday Independent, Mrs Foster spoke about the impact of as a child finding her father after the IRA shot him in the head.
The former first minister also discussed the impact on her teenage daughter of some of the crudest comments made about her on social media, some of which suggested she looked like a man.
At the end of the interview, Mrs Foster was asked to play a ‘word association’ game in which the respondent says the first word which comes into the head about a particular person or topic.
In response to Ms O’Neill’s name, Northern Ireland’s first female first minister apparently paused, then laughed and said: “I don’t want to be sexist and I am not going to be sexist because I can’t...”
At that point the interviewer said: “Ah, go on– it’s not sexist if it’s true.”
Mrs Foster responded: “Blonde!”
When asked to expand, she said: “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 [looking] ‘perfect’.”
When asked then if appearance is important in politics, the DUP leader said: “Oh 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 that you are going to be photographed.”
Mrs Foster went on to say that she believed appearance was increasingly significant in politics: “I do think even for men now [it matters]. If you look at William Hague and what happened to him with the baseball cap, Trump and the tie and the hair, I think image has become [important] – it’s the age we live in.”
Sinn Fein immediately denounced what it characterised as “sexist and disparaging remarks” and “offensive remarks which do a disservice to women in politics and to equality and respect”.
In a statement today, 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.”
Also today, DUP veteran Sammy Wilson told BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme that Mrs Foster had been correct because ”Michelle O’Neill is blonde, unless she’s dyed her hair since the last time I had the misfortune to see her on TV”.
Tonight Ms O’Neill issued a statement, apparently about the situation – although it was not referred to explicitly, in which she said that “there can be no place for sexism or any form of discrimination in public life”.
However, the statement did not state whether Ms O’Neill herself considered the remarks to be demeaning.
In the statement Ms O’Neill said: “There can be no room in our society for sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia or any form of discrimination.
“There is no right or wrong way to look and women are in positions of leadership because we belong, representing everyone equally.”