Sam McBride: '˜Sexism' row shows scale of Foster's rebranding challenge

Arlene Foster appears to have been honestly and innocently answering a question during a rapid-fire '˜word association' game when she turned the focus on Michelle O'Neill's appearance.

Arlene Foster a week ago at the DUP campaign launch
Arlene Foster a week ago at the DUP campaign launch

The immediate impact of the rumpus over her honest answer will almost certainly be advice from political spin doctors not to properly answer any question which could be remotely controversial, leading to the sort of bland responses which, ironically, leave so many voters disillusioned with politics.

After months of political battering over her role in the RHI scandal and subsequent events, it was a demonstrably more confident DUP leader who just a week ago launched the party’s election campaign and fielded questions from journalists.

There seemed to be a pronounced attempt to remove some past red lines for re-entering a devolved Executive and to generally rehabilitate Mrs Foster’s image among nationalists as well as among unionists – all part of the DUP’s tactics as it attempts to persuade Sinn Fein to go back into power at Stormont.

Although there will be plenty of voters – and not just unionists – who will be baffled by how a row has ensued after Mrs Foster, seemingly in all sincerity, complemented her rival’s appearance, the fact that Mrs Foster herself paused in the interview before making the comments shows that she was aware of at least the potential for a backlash.

That she then continued to say what she thought may concern some of her DUP colleagues.

But fundamentally, this row is unlikely to lose the DUP – a party whose members have been far more outspoken in the past – many votes.

What the DUP cannot know is what the impact will be within nationalism, where in the last election Mrs Foster’s likening of Sinn Fein to a “crocodile” enraged many nationalists, driving them to vote for Sinn Fein.

However, the caution in Ms O’Neill’s statement last night – in which she did not even say that she found the remarks offensive – perhaps suggests that Sinn Fein does not have the same electoral expectations of this row.