‘Cruel and malicious’: sexist attacks dampen joy for Stormont’s new female members

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<span>Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA</span>
Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

As record proportion of women sign roll, misogynistic abuse during campaign prompts demands for change

In a sign of how sexism and misogyny were so embedded in Northern Ireland, official minutes once recorded Ian Paisley Jr shouting “moo, moo, moo” at a female politician.

The outburst against Monica McWilliams in 1997 was part of a boorish, sneering culture that deterred women from entering politics and sought to intimidate the few who dared.

Change has come. Of the 90 newly elected assembly members who trooped into Stormont to sign the roll on Friday, 32 are women – a record 35%. Four of the top 10 candidates who polled highest in last week’s election were women. The leaders of the biggest and third-biggest party, Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin and Naomi Long of Alliance, are women.

Female MLAs have beamed from the assembly steps, veterans and newbies, embodying what could be a new era for equality in Northern Ireland – assuming the political impasse that is blocking the formation of the assembly is resolved. “We are very happy with this increase! But there is still much more work to be done,” tweeted 50:50 NI, an advocacy group for women in Northern Ireland politics.

Some wonder if this election represented progress, as a vicious brand of sexism and misogyny threaded the campaign, leaving some candidates shaken and fuelling demands for greater oversight of social media platforms.

“It was an absolute nightmare, it was purposeful, cruel and malicious,” said Cara Hunter, who won a seat for the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) in East Derry despite being targeted for sexual harassment.

Anonymous trolls circulated a 40-second clip from a pornographic film, which they falsely claimed featured the 26-year-old. It was shared via WhatsApp and forwarded thousands of times.

“I can’t articulate how it’s impacted my whole family and circle of friends,” said Hunter. “This was an intimidation tactic to make me feel embarrassed and humiliated for something I didn’t do. Anyone can just create a lie to just blitz your reputation.”

Trolls launched a similar smear campaign against Diane Forsyth, 38, who won a seat for the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) in South Down despite weeks of false claims and innuendo, including a screenshot with explicit images placed alongside her election poster. While canvassing, people told her she was a disgrace and asked if she had been involved in pornography.

Other candidates suffered more direct abuse. Three men in east Belfast surrounded Hannah Kenny, of the People Before Profit party. “They blocked her path, gripping her by the arm and throat before detailing the violence they would subject her to if she returned to the area,” the party said in a statement.

In south Belfast, two youths attacked and tried to grab the phone of the SDLP’s Elsie Trainor after she tried to stop them taking down her posters. “There’s a toxicity in this election and we need a real public conversation about protecting democracy and the ability to participate in elections without intimidation or threat,” tweeted Claire Hanna, an SDLP MP.

Amnesty International cited research showing female politicians were 27 times likelier than male counterparts to face online abuse. A Belfast Telegraph survey in 2020 found that more than a quarter of female MLAs had been sexually harassed in their political careers and 70% had received sexist comments.

It cannot be left just to police to tackle online abuse, said Connie Egan, an Alliance assembly member. “These social media platforms need to take responsibility for abuse and harassment. But they’re very slow to do so.” She also called for young people to receive better education about the impact of trolling. “It needs to be a whole society approach,” she added.

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, a Fine Gael member of the Irish parliament, told a court in Dublin this week that she felt a “cold sense of dread” after being sent sexually explicit videos during a 2020 election campaign. Gerard Culhane, 43, of Glin, County Limerick, pleaded guilty to harassment.

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