Newton Emerson: Latest gaffe shows Arlene Foster is not up to the job - The Irish News
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Newton Emerson: Latest gaffe shows Arlene Foster is not up to the job

DUP leader Arlene Foster said her "blonde" remark about Michelle O'Neill was meant as a compliment. Picture by David Young, Press Association

I played a small part in Arlene Foster’s “blonde” gaffe.

The subject of sexism was raised during the DUP leader’s ill-fated Sunday Independent interview when journalist Niamh Horan quoted my Irish News article from two weeks ago, in which I accused Sinn Fein’s backroom boys of patronising Michelle O’Neill.

“That is very much the case,” Foster replied, declaring this to be a terrible business altogether. Yet that did not stop her going on to patronise O’Neill with remarks she acknowledged to be sexist in advance.

In further doublethink, Foster complained about the misogyny she has suffered, citing ‘jokes’ likening her appearance to a man - yet then raised O’Neill’s appearance and femininity.

A frequent corollary in Northern Ireland politics of believing two wrongs make a right is thinking ‘it’s not wrong if I do it’. Perhaps Foster did not see that because she was referring in her case to online abuse, of which she has endured a deluge.

Ironically, much of this has been led by progressive equality-lovers who would call the police if they heard a ‘transphobic’ comment from anyone else.

But that only emphasises how ridiculous these people are and why a political leader should soar gracefully above them, rather than end up gracelessly equating herself to them.

Foster unwittingly acknowledged this in an extraordinary part of the interview, where she revealed that since January her Twitter account has been operated by someone else and she has taken the app off her phone.

What Foster does not mention is that prior to January, she was often goaded into replying to random idiots online instead of just ignoring them, as anyone with the slightest knowledge of public relations and social media should have advised. Having finally taken that advice, Foster is still undoing it months later in a newspaper interview. Why? Public engagement and accessibility are all very well but even a position as lowly as DUP leader or Stormont first minister should be above rolling around in the digital gutter.

It is easy to over-analysis the text of a political interview - the mere act of writing the answers down can make them look deceptively structured. Foster was almost certainly all over the place by accident rather than design, so the key question her performance raises is one of competence. How could she let this accident happen?

When Horan asked her to play a “word association game” with the names of political rivals, Foster should have politely said no, using any of the obvious evasions available - ‘I wouldn’t dream of summing up another person like that’, for example.

Most party officers within earshot of such a question would fake a seizure to prevent it but the DUP leader seems to have been unaccompanied, which would be a cavalier approach to any interview, let alone one before an election. If a politician wants to be natural and let their real personality shine through, they need the self-awareness to ask if this might do more harm than good.

Foster’s interview recalls the 2008 feature in the Sunday Tribune, which introduced us to Peter Robinson’s hilariously tasteless home. Now another Dublin paper has let us into another strange DUP interior - the clashing carpet and curtains of Foster’s mind. But there the comparison ends.

After his career almost imploded in 2010, Robinson displayed convincing signs of humility and reflection, at least for a while.

Foster has met a few Gaelgoiri but she is still triangulating her position to imply she has not moved an inch. It is clear she feels herself to be the victim of a cunning republican plot - and that view looks increasingly justified as the Stormont deadlock drags on. But where is Foster’s admission of falling for this plot? What is her explanation for knowingly doing so? And where is her cunning?

In 2008, the Robinsons left out a wedding anniversary card from Gerry Adams, signed in Irish, on their three-ton hand carved stone mantelpiece. They made sure the Sunday Tribune saw it.

When the Sunday Independent asked Foster about Adams, she said: “He has a very strange personality. He wouldn’t be someone who I understand very well because he is not the norm of people who I would meet.”

Of course, Sinn Féin is enjoying this far too much for its manufactured outrage to be taken seriously. It is unionists who need to rail against Foster. She is simply not up to the task of leadership - and worse still, she looks incapable of improving.

newton@irishnews.com

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