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'The paper should apologise': Fianna Fáil politicians respond to newspaper attack on their looks

‘I am concerned for my colleagues and all the women with an interest in politics that may look at this and think, why would I bother?’

Mary Butler and Erin McGreehan with party colleague Catherine Ardagh
Mary Butler and Erin McGreehan with party colleague Catherine Ardagh
Image: Conor McCabe

An opinion piece in yesterday’s Irish Mail on Sunday strongly criticised a number of Fianna Fáil TDs for their clothes and appearance at the party’s think-in last week. Here, three members of Fianna Fáil’s parliamentary party respond to what was written. 

Senator Fiona Loughlin, Spokesperson on Education

‘I believe the paper should apologise and make a donation to a women’s charity.’

My first response upon reading the article, which was WhatsApped to me, was that it was pathetic, inappropriate and very poor journalism that did not merit any oxygen. As the day went on, I got several supportive messages from women and men who were genuinely upset by what they had read. I realised that by not saying anything that I was acting like bystander in a schoolyard  bullying situation, and not calling out bad behaviour. Yes, perception is important, but behaviour is more so – and for the newspaper to publish catty remarks about women like this, well, that is, as I said, pathetic.

Last year my own self esteem was at an all time low after losing a seat in the general election, which is a very public humiliation. In trying to build back better, articles like this don’t help. More importantly, it sends a nasty, toxic message to women and girls who may be interested in running for political office. As a society we say we need more women in public life, as a society we say “be kind”, but public life is becoming an increasingly toxic space. Politics is tough, but I always endeavour to be respectful, dignified and yes, kind in my dealings with others. That probably makes me more vulnerable, but I would rather be that than be desensitised to the worries and concerns of those I represent.

This type of gutter journalism needs to be called out, not because it is about me or my colleagues, but because it is basically bullying, and serves as a disincentive to those who may be interested in public life.

I would far rather have spent the time speaking to the journalist and others about the issues that concern me (and my colleagues) about the challenges women and society face today, as opposed to my sartorial style. I will wear my “jersey” dress [which was criticised in the article] loud and proud, mainly because it doesn’t need ironing, and frankly life is too short to spend too much time with the iron. I believe the paper should apologise and make a donation to a women’s charity.

Senator Erin McGreehan, Spokesperson on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration

‘This is bigger than the eight people mentioned in the article – it is about anyone who has been on the receiving end of ridicule or cheap shots whether that be in the office, in a school, in the media or social media’

My initial reaction was upset for myself and my colleagues, that another person would be so cruel to another person. I cried and then I was angry at myself for being upset, angry at being bothered by ‘just words’. But words matter. They are everything.

There was no need to use such corrosive language. Those type of personalised attacks are unacceptable. To put down another person for what they are wearing, their weight, their appearance is wholly unacceptable. The soul purpose of this article was to shock, to demean and make people feel bad about themselves.

In my opinion there is no value in that type of journalism. I thought about not tweeting about it as I didn’t want to bring attention to it. But it is bigger than the eight people mentioned in the article – it is about anyone who has been on the receiving end of ridicule or cheap shots, whether that be in the office, in a school, in the media or social media. It happens across society. I feel if we don’t call it out it is accepting abuse and falling into the narrative that it’s ok to attack people for the way they look. Or indeed that politicians or anyone in the public eye is fair game.

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Policies and politics are fair game, not one’s appearance. It is not my job to look well, it is my job to work hard and do my job well. In a time when we want to attract people into politics, especially women and people from diverse backgrounds, we must ask the question about what type of public representatives we want. Do we want people so hardened, so desensitised, almost robot-like, so that nothing people say or print about them matters to them? I certainly don’t want to become that detached person. I am very glad I have feelings and emotions and that words matter. It is exactly this empathy and emotion that drives me to do my job with the passion it deserves.

Mary Butler TD, Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People

‘What I am going to wear that day is not what gets me out of bed, and if it was, I wouldn’t be a very good politician.’

After a productive few days at the Fianna Fáil think-in I thought one of the newspapers might pick up on my presentation on the importance of minding our mental health with Dr Harry Barry, or maybe some of the comments I gave about the party’s election review. The last thing I expected to see was an article ridiculing me for what I wore!

Being a politician, especially a Minister, brings with it a thick skin. However as my colleague Erin McGreehan says above, words can hurt. I am appalled that a national newspaper would publish an article with the sole purpose of ridiculing, mocking and degrading public representatives. As public servants we are, of course, open to criticism in regards to our policies, our political ideals, even our work rates. However, I cannot understand why an article was written and a platform was used for what seems like the primary purpose of attempting to devalue other people – and in particular other women – instead of focusing on key issues facing our country, like mental health or older people. 

I am concerned for my colleagues and all the women with an interest in politics that may look at this and think, why would I bother? We have come a long way with female representation in politics but everyone knows we have a long way to go and this type of narrative certainly does not help. What gets me up in the morning is helping my constituents, my community, my county, and working to further improve our mental health services and the quality of life for our older people in this country. What I am going to wear that day is not what gets me out of bed, and if it was, I wouldn’t be a very good politician.

About the author:

Minister of State Mary Butler, Senator Fiona Loughlin and Senator Erin McGreehan

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