Northern Ireland

Foster 'sexist' blonde remark sparks social media anger

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill stands alongside DUP leader Arlene Foster Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Sinn Féin has labelled Arlene Foster's comments 'sexist'

There has been a social media frenzy over DUP leader Arlene Foster's reference to Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill as "blonde".

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Mrs Foster used the word to describe Sinn Féin's northern leader during a word-association game.

Mrs O'Neill has responded that there can be no place for sexism or any form of discrimination in public life.

"As political leaders we have a duty and a responsibility to lead by example," she said.

"There is a clear need for more women in public life and there is an onus on women in political leadership to empower women to encourage greater participation in public life."

Legally Blonde

The row was labelled "#blondegate' on Twitter, as social media filled with memes.

They included a mock-up of Mrs O'Neill as the lead character from the film Legally Blonde, and a cartoon crocodile in a blonde wig.

The latter is a reference to a previous "crocodile" comment made by Mrs Foster in reference to Sinn Féin demands for an Irish Language Act.

Their parties have so far failed to reach a power-sharing agreement to restore an executive in Northern Ireland since March's assembly election.

The Alliance Party leader, Naomi Long, described Mrs Foster's comments as "disappointing" and said describing another female leader in terms solely of her appearance "trivialises women in politics".

Mrs O'Neill's teenage daughter took to Twitter to defend her mother, calling Sunday's comments "disgraceful".

Image copyright @SK_ONeill twitter
Image caption Mrs O'Neill's daughter labelled the 'blonde' comments as 'disgraceful'

During the interview, when asked what word came to mind regarding Mrs O'Neill, Mrs Foster said: "I am not going to be sexist because I can't..." but when pushed by journalist Niamh Horan, she 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'."

In the same interview, Mrs Foster criticised scrutiny of her own appearance when the RHI scandal erupted last year.

She said: "Nobody looking at my Twitter feed or social media could say that there wasn't misogyny."

She described the "onslaught" as "horrific" and said the comments had physically upset her 17-year-old daughter.

Sinn Féin MLA Elisha MCallion called on Mrs Foster to retract the "sexist and disparaging remarks" about Mrs O'Neill.

"It is totally unacceptable in the 21st century for a political leader to characterise another political leader based on the colour of their hair.

Image copyright @Moneills twitter
Image caption Mrs O'Neill has yet to comment publically, but posted a picture with party colleague Mary Lou McDonald ahead of Brexit talks on Monday

"The irony of talking about sexism and misogyny appears to be totally lost on Arlene Foster when she makes such remarks about others."

The journalist who interviewed Mrs Foster defended the comments on The Nolan Show on Monday.

Niamh Horan said: "Blonde is a descriptive world, it's everyone else this morning attaching their own meaning to it."

Speaking to the BBC, the DUP's Sammy Wilson denied the comments were sexist, insisting that Arlene Foster was just stating the obvious.

He described the row as a "smokescreen" to political issues and said that Sinn Féin was trying to play the victim: "[going] out of their way to find grievance where no grievance was meant.

"If it had been me, I would have been making some far, far more derogatory comments about the way she's handled the job since she took over," he said.

Image copyright @SHAUNAREPORTS Twitter
Image caption A cartoon crocodile in a blonde-wig circulated widely on social media.

Social media has been divided as to whether the comments were another "crocodile moment" by the DUP, or an overreaction by Sinn Féin politicians and some on social media.

DUP MLA Christopher Stalford mocked the reaction on his Facebook page, insinuating Sinn Féin was being over-sensitive and referred to them as "snow flakes". He also shared a photo of his blonde children on Twitter jokingly captioned "Blondies for Arlene!".

In January, Mrs Foster claimed calls for her to stand down over the RHI scandal were misogynistic.

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