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Opinion: Doug Beattie's tweets highlight the widespread misogyny in Northern Ireland politics

In order to tackle toxic masculinity in everyday life, we need political leaders to take ownership of their own actions, writes Emma DeSouza.

Emma DeSouza

Updated Jan 27th 2022, 8:30 AM

ULSTER UNIONIST PARTY (UUP) leader Doug Beattie came under intense scrutiny this week after a series of deeply offensive and misogynistic tweets he made between 2012 and 2014 were brought to light.

As the litany of crass statements continued to mount, the party leader – once praised as a refreshing, progressive face for unionism – made the decision to defend the indefensible in an attempt to save his political career by deflecting from his own culpability and instead shifting blame to the ‘toxic masculinity’ of the army as the root of his attitude.

Beattie has apologised and has insisted that despite the tweets, he is not a misogynist and many would argue that when it comes to policy and practice, he is one of the more moderate politicians in this sphere.

What the entire saga highlights, however, is that regardless of where it begins – be it in the home, at school, at work – toxic masculinity is a pervasive mindset that persists within Northern Ireland’s political institutions, and that the old mantra of “boys will be boys” continues unabated.

Much needed change

Academic Eileen Evason once termed The Troubles as “an armed patriarchy”, and while the Good Friday Agreement and its subsequent period of sustained peace may have resulted in an end to the military conflict in Northern Ireland, women continue to be underrepresented, marginalised, and subjected to high levels of misogyny and abuse.

When held under scrutiny, there are evident a number of problem areas and societal failings coalescing to result in a culture of accepted misogyny within Northern Ireland; few so apparent as the underrepresentation of women in decision-making spaces, consent education, media portrayals of women and sexual offences, and the influences of male-dominated organisations such as the Orange Order and paramilitary groups.

A cultural apathy and normalisation of illegal paramilitary organisations seeding themselves into the most economically and socially deprived areas of Northern Ireland specifically to intimidate and recruit young boys has yet to be effectively addressed.

A watershed moment in tackling toxic masculinity and misogyny came after the now-infamous Belfast rugby trial of 2018. The four defendants were found not guilty of the charges against them, but the trial highlighted a number of systemic issues, notably that of victim-blaming, as well as matters surrounding consent, casual misogyny and media portrayals of women and rape trials.

Raise Your Voice, a community project led by the Women’s Resource & Development Agency (WRDA) in partnership with Women’s Support Network (WSN), Northern Ireland Rural Women’s Network (NIRWN) and Reclaim the Agenda was born out of the public response to the trial. In the years since the project has led a campaign to broaden and modernise legislation in Northern Ireland to include misogyny as a hate crime.

Resistant to change

The project has engaged with a number of councils, several of whom have since adopted motions to recognise misogyny as a hate crime, however, moves to bring forward these changes have faced resistance primarily, and unsurprisingly, from men in powerful political positions.

In 2020, in as telling a statement as one could envision, DUP mayor Alan Givan described such a motion as a “gagging order on the comments that so many of us often make,” adding that there were “better ways to protect the ladies.”

While Doug Beattie was quick to duck behind his allegations of toxic masculinity in the army, he neglected to mention its prominence within politics.

Northern Ireland’s Minister for Justice Naomi Long recently spoke of the “vile misogynistic” abuse she received following a Stormont decision on vaccine passports, while Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has stated that women in politics are constantly “swimming upstream” against an undercurrent of misogyny and abuse.

Women across public life still receive death threats and a persistently higher level of threats of violence than those made against their male counterparts.

In terms of representation of women in politics, both the UUP and DUP trail the bottom with 10 per cent and 22 per cent of women MLA’s, respectively. This underrepresentation is also evident in monitoring commissions and peace-building structures, such as the Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition Commission, which comprised 14 men and just one woman.

Shadow of misogyny

With an election looming, and an absence of a strong contender for party leader, it was always unlikely that Doug Beattie would be toppled by this scandal, but long-term ramifications remain likely to follow in its wake. Independent unionist Claire Sugden, who had been considering a move to the UUP, has stated that such a move was now “unlikely” in response to the unearthed tweets.

Furthermore, the party’s “union of people” message is now deeply damaged, with the party’s acceptance of Doug Beatie’s apology, and its attempt to negate the comments as “historical” likely to impact its appeal to moderate voters.

The sheer scale of misogynistic comments, along with numerous racist, transphobic, and generally derogatory remarks, may very well follow Doug Beattie as well as the party he was tasked with leading.

Let’s not forget, the starting point of this political crisis was the sharing of a casually misogynistic joke at the weekend, which Doug Beattie now faces defamation action over, and which will leave supporters wondering whether the UUP leader has truly changed, as he so vehemently purports.

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Instead of outsourcing blame to toxic masculinity in the army, political leaders and those within their constituencies should focus on addressing toxic masculinity and misogyny within everyday life in Northern Ireland, but to do so effectively, we need political leadership willing to take ownership – or better yet – unwilling to lower themselves to misogynistic behaviour, to begin with.

Emma DeSouza is a citizens rights campaigner for the Good Friday Agreement and is Vice-Chair & NI spokesperson for VotingRights.ie. She recently successfully challenged the Home Office to assert her right to identify as Irish.

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