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23 January 2017

Arlene Foster, like Margaret Thatcher, has had to combat misogyny in her political career

In a macho world, it can be difficult to compromise, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

DUP leader Arlene Foster
DUP leader Arlene Foster

I’ve been thinking about Arlene Foster, and about what went wrong. We met first, I think, when I was covering an Orange parade in Fermanagh in the late 1990s in which she was participating as a member of the Rosslea Accordion Band.

I was sorry when in 2004 she jumped ship from the UUP to the DUP, not least because I was a friend and admirer of David Trimble and saw the Reverend Ian Paisley as a self-serving egomaniac who in a lifetime of stoking sectarian fires had acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA.

I respected her reasons, though, and was pleased to see her climbing up the party ladder.

Apart from anything else, I thought unionism badly needed articulate women who might de-escalate tensions rather than ramping them up for macho reasons.


The last time I saw her in person was again in Fermanagh, at the Irvinestown Twelfth in 2014, to which — although I was known to be an atheist from a Dublin Catholic background — I’d been invited as a guest.

I was happy to accept, as the Fermanagh Grand Orange Lodge have been a fine example to their brethren elsewhere in their positive and imaginative outreach to their nationalist neighbours.

This time I was a participant and Arlene was an onlooker, but from the reviewing platform at a quiet time, I spotted her across the road and went over for a chat.

What struck me then apart from her warmth and openness, was how unchanged she remained despite years of ministerial office.

She was among her own people, she seemed to know everyone and she was completely at ease.

So I’ve watched with sadness and frustration as over the last few weeks she turned a mess into a disaster because she appeared to be suffering from a serious attack of the “no-surrenders”.

Like so many other people, I thought her blaming “misogyny” was absurd.

But then, as I brooded, I thought about the career of her heroine, Margaret Thatcher, and the permanent effect on her of all the misogyny she experienced.

It took Mrs Thatcher the best part of a decade to be selected for a winnable seat, and then, from 1959, she would have another 16 years of being patronised and underestimated before she replaced Ted Heath as Leader of the Conservative Party and, in 1979, become Prime Minister.

In 1970, asked if she had ambitions to lead the country, she had said emphatically, “There will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime — the male population is too prejudiced”.

It would be the next century before women began to make any real headway in politics in either part of Ireland.

Mrs Foster leads a party that has had just one female MP (Iris Robinson) and one MEP (Diane Dodds), both helped by the seniority of their husbands.

When Mrs Thatcher achieved power, she knew women were often dismissed as being indecisive and weak, so she ensured from day one that she would impose her authority and no one would ever see her as a push-over. She was famously thought, even by her friends to have been too domineering.

Mrs Foster had a similar problem and, despite years of fighting misogyny in her own culture and in the assembly, she is still in a macho world.

Out of 38 DUP MLAs, she is one of only eight women; and though Sinn Fein, which has 10 out of 28, presents a more female appearance, it’s a party ruled by authoritarian men, some of whom used to direct a terrorist campaign and now speak fluently the language of peace while conducting a culture war.

All this was exacerbated by having as her Deputy First Minister a man who gave the graveside eulogy to the assassin who tried to murder her father and who, though he can be charming, is a very hard man indeed.

So maybe it wasn’t surprising that Mrs Foster should have overdone it in her determination to show — in Mrs Thatcher’s words — that the lady was not for turning. The difference is that Mrs Thatcher had shrewd advisers who persuaded her to compromise when necessary. Sadly for her, it’s clear that Mrs Foster didn’t.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards