Female MLAs claim online misogynistic abuse is deterring women from entering politics

Female politicians in Northern Ireland are calling for legislative change after experiencing campaigns of online abuse.

It comes as more than three quarters of councillors here have been subjected to abuse or intimidation - according to a recent survey by the Northern Ireland Local Government Association.

Two-thirds said that they'd been abused or intimidated on social media, and just over half said said it had happened in person.

The report calls for legislation to be developed and strengthened to improve the safety of all elected representatives.

The SDLP's Cara Hunter and Dianne Forsythe from the DUP as well as the Alliance party leader Naomi Long also say the intimidation they received is deterring other women from entering politics.

In the run up to last year's Assembly election false pornographic videos claiming to be Ms Hunter and Ms Forsythe were widely circulated on social media.

Intimidation which, they insist, would never happen to a man.

"It's totally different when it comes to women. You only have to look at social media or hear the things that people are saying. When I look back I'm in disbelief to a degree, but in some ways I don't know how much better things would be in another election," the DUP's Diane Forsythe said.

The SDLP's Cara Hunter said: "I actually have heard from candidates who had previously considered running in the local council elections they've seen what has happened, myself and other female MLAs, and it has put them off as actually it's actually put them off putting in an application for a seat they once wanted."

Alliance's Naomi Long agrees that women in particular are thinking twice about a political career.

"They look at the abuse I get, then they think, Well, I'm not sure I want to have that abuse. I'm not sure I want my family and friends subjected to this kind of abuse. And so I think it is an impediment. And I also think if we don't call it out, it becomes normalized," she said.

All agree the law must adapt to an online world to allow police to pursue offenders.

Ms Hunter said: "Due to the nature of what had happened to me, there was apparently no crime, so to speak, which I find totally absurd. And I really struggled with, you know. The PSNI we are told are there to protect us. But it was as though the legislation and the law didn't raise to meet where I was."

"There's not much the police can do. If they can't trace the source of the material that is falsified. There isn't really an offence there so it's definitely something that I hope that can't get looked at. Because as we move forward in this online world, I worry for not just elected reps, I worry for my children. I worry for wider society," Diane Forsythe added.

The online safety bill is a new law currently going through Westminster. It will make social media companies more responsible for their users' safety on their platforms.

It may be too late for Cara Hunter and Dianne Forsyth, but the hope is it will provide more protection in the future for both the public and their elected representatives.

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