In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic tale, the civilised Jekyll, fascinated by the duality of his personality, manages to embody his evil side in the depraved Hyde, then finds he cannot control the transition between the two. Hyde runs amok. That’s Doug Beattie’s twitter account, firing out messages full of attitudes and prejudices that the Jekyll side of Beattie, the man attempting to modernise the Ulster Unionist Party, claims he never had.
Last Saturday, Beattie was all over the front pages with a beaming photo, the only party leader to get a good rating in the new opinion poll. He was in soaring form. “They couldn’t have picked a smugger picture,” he tweeted, with laugh-till-you-cry emojis. That night, still buoyant, he tweeted the now infamous joke that has led to him being sued by the Democratic Unionist Party’s former leader, Edwin Poots. It involved the wives of unionist party leaders, brothels and bodily odours, and many who read it recoiled, then told him it was awful.
Jekyll Beattie responded: ‘Awful, just awful… I’m ashamed… I can’t justify that… horrendous, horrific… I’ve no excuse…’
Beattie took it down, apologised, said he had not meant to cause offence. But the truffle hunters of twitter had a scent. Soon they had snuffled out a haul of Beattie tweets that paraded every offensive stereotype in the charge book. Most dated back to the years 2011-2014, when he was a British army captain in his 40s.
Most were meant to be funny but could only have amused sexists, racists or those indifferent to people not exactly like them. Some were salacious, though more 1960s Benny Hill creepy than 2018 Belfast rape trial nasty. They featured schoolgirls’ skirts, “hookers”, randy, drunken Gurkhas, and humourless feminists with hairy chins. Other tweets held forth on the inability of women, foreigners and people from minority ethnic groups to do things properly. Leave it to the white man.
The next photos of Beattie to appear were of a man humiliated and almost broken. In a statement, now pinned to his twitter feed, he acknowledged and apologised for misogyny, said he was ashamed and embarrassed, and vowed to do better. He embarked on a series of media interviews. He was alone. No press officers, no advisors. He told BBC Northern Ireland’s Stephen Nolan, “My confidence is gone.” But there was something strange about his penance. He was contrite, though he did keep trying to consign Hyde Beattie to history, even though he had sallied forth just last weekend. Nolan read out the tweets. Jekyll Beattie responded: “Awful, just awful… I’m ashamed… I can’t justify that… horrendous, horrific… I’ve no excuse…” But he also professed bewilderment: “I am not the person who was portrayed in those tweets… it’s not me… even ten years ago it is not who I was.” He was adamant that he was “no racist”.
Offence is not the worst outcome of misogyny and racism. These prejudices inform behaviours that cause real and profound harm
When Nolan offered his distraught interviewee the option of pleading post-traumatic stress given his military postings to war zones in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Beattie allowed that on returning from environments in which there was “toxic testosterone”, “you decompress, you desensitise”. He spoke of using “dark humour” which was not, he said, meant to cause offence. But offence is not the worst outcome of misogyny and racism. These prejudices inform behaviours that cause real and profound harm. A climate is created, and denied. It is disempowering. People have to waste energy fighting it, energy that others use to thrive.
Put Captain Beattie’s jokes in context. In 2009 a young black man joined the British army. He was awarded best recruit in his year and had high ambitions. But in 2013, after serving four years in Afghanistan, he quit. He had put up with a lot of “dark humour”, he said, but what started as banter had intensified into outright racism. Raising it with a superior officer made matters worse. “If you talked,” he said, “your career was screwed.” He was persuaded not to cite racial discrimination as his reason for leaving, and put down health reasons instead. In 2015 a young woman in the British navy reported a more senior officer for repeatedly groping her. She was ostracised and nothing was done. Another discovered in the course of leadership training that a male armoured commander would not take orders from her on the radio, “because I am a girl”. Women and black and minority ethnic personnel are under-represented in the British forces, and are repeatedly found to have been subjected to more bullying and harassment at work than white men.
On a BBC NI discussion last week the People Before Profit MLA Fiona Ferguson said that misogyny was institutionalised in Northern Ireland. It was rampant and faced by women on a daily basis. She mentioned bodily autonomy – the Ulster Unionist Party’s health minister continues to thwart implementation of the abortion law. She asked why women were consistently responsible for most caring roles, why they received lower pay than men. UUP veteran Chris McGimpsey said she was exaggerating. She accused him of mansplaining.
With 90 per cent of its MLAs men, it is no exaggeration to say the UUP is a male-dominated party. Beattie pointed to the work he has done to bring in progressive young women. In truth, he needs them to grow his party among those unionists who reject the hopelessly sexist and homophobic fundamentalism of the DUP. These women stood by him last week with more than the grim, stoical smiles of wives of public men who have done them wrong and been found out. But Beattie’s commitment to equality is also undermined on another front. He claims he supports the Belfast Agreement but refuses to declare whether or not he would work in an executive with a Sinn Féin first minister. Dr Jekyll has a lot of work to do.