THE Ulster Unionist Party has been accused of orchestrating a sexist campaign against DUP lady Arlene Foster – sparking the Enniskillen council by-election into life.
A furious row exploded, after a Fermanagh-based newspaper, yesterday, published a letter from former UUP MLA and Stormont minister Sam Foster, in which he questioned Mrs Foster's ability to balance life as a wife and working mum, with her various political roles.
He said his party's candidate in next week's poll, Basil Johnston, was "a single person", who would "always be available" to serve people on council.
The DUP said the letter was evidence of what had been an "undercurrent of sexism" aimed at Mrs Foster during canvassing.
But Mr Johnston last night rejected this and distanced himself from Mr Foster's letter which he deemed to contain "personal comments".
He noted there was "long-standing" animosity between Mrs Foster and Mr Foster which he did not want to get dragged into.
And any observations about the DUP rival, he claimed, were entirely based on person and politics and had nothing to do with gender.
In his letter, Mr Foster recalled the former councillor Joe Dodds – whose death earlier this year led to the by-election – was "a man's man".
He then added: "Seriously, I have to ask the question: how does Arlene expect to contend with the number of responsible roles she wants to carry and to do each one well, but not to neglect any, eg wife, mother, councillor, MLA, and minister of a department?"
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, son of Joe Dodds, said the UUP man had overstepped the mark this time.
"It certainly is scraping the bottom of the barrel when political knockabout stops and mud-slinging starts," he said.
"Sam Foster questions how someone could possibly be a good wife and mother if they should have the 'audacity' to be a councillor, MLA and minister."
Mr Foster's "core argument", he claimed, was "that a woman cannot hold down the same roles which are currently being held by Sam's own male party colleagues" – Sir Reg Empey and Michael McGimpsey, who sit on the Stormont Executive, with Mrs Foster, and are also MLAs, councillors and fathers and husbands.
Mr Dodds asked if Mr Foster thought his UUP colleagues could do their jobs capably?
"He also suggests," the DUP MP noted, "that Basil Johnston is a good candidate because 'he is a single person'. From when did marital status become a determining factor of one's ability to be a councillor?
"Quite frankly, these remarks would not have been made about a male election candidate – it is blatant sexism."
The DUP is further concerned that this type of line is being pushed during canvassing on the doorsteps in Enniskillen.
The UUP has made it a constant theme of their campaign, in recent weeks, that Mrs Foster – if elected to council – will have multiple political mandates.
But Mr Johnston said: "My concerns about Arlene Foster's candidacy are to do with the fact that I don't believe she can be a full-time councillor while she is already an MLA and a minister. It was the conflict of interests which actually caused her to resign from the council last year.
“We are in the grip of an economic downturn.
“Consumers are facing a huge rise in gas and electricity prices. It is unfortunate that even at this time Ms Foster has to concentrate on fighting a by-election instead of putting her full effort into improving our faltering economy.
“Northern Ireland needs a full-time Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment at this critical time.
“That she is a woman, wife and mother has absolutely no bearing on my criticism of her.”