Belfast Telegraph

UK Website Of The Year

DUP’s new face at Assembly: A minister in the making?

South Belfast MLA Emma Pengelly is the newest kid on the Stormont block - and she's injecting glamour into polices, reports Una Brankin

Published 29/09/2015

New DUP MLA for South Belfast Emma Pengelly at Stormont yesterday
New DUP MLA for South Belfast Emma Pengelly at Stormont yesterday
New DUP MLA for South Belfast Emma Pengelly with First Minister Peter Robinson and Jimmy Spratt

She has been subject to intimidation and had her family home badly damaged by a bomb, but Emma Pengelly is determined to transcend tribal politics in Stormont.

The new DUP MLA for South Belfast - replacing Jimmy Spratt, who is retiring from the Assembly on health grounds - could also be described as the party's answer to the UUP's Jo-Anne Dobson in the glamour stakes, but there's much more to the willowy newcomer than her long flowing hair and on-trend outfits.

Regarded as a natural political talent with future ministerial potential, the 35-year-old barrister not only worked closely with the Rev Ian Paisley as an advisor during the devolution process, but has also guided Peter Robinson though his various crises as First Minister.

In general chit-chat, you'd never guess her high-flying credentials - she admits to being a fan of 'fast' fashion and light fiction - but on closer inspection, her political passion is clear.

The former Emma Little was born on the very last day of the 1970s, as the daughter of a civil servant and granddaughter of an independent councillor on Armagh City Council, and grew up in Markethill in south Armagh.

"Markethill suffered greatly during the Troubles - our own house was quite significantly damaged when a large bomb went off in the town in August 1991," she said. "It was a very political time in Northern Ireland and I was very conscious of the political context, which is why I became involved in student politics when I went to Queen's University to study law. There, I got to see the bigger picture - I went to student conferences and looked at real policy issues, like tuition fees, beyond the traditional ones."

Emma lived in south Belfast during her years as a student and young barrister. She now lives off the Castlereagh Road but speaks with the unaffected rural accent of her home town.

She was elected deputy president of Queen's students' union in 1998, when it was seen as a republican hotbed and a cold house for unionists.

"It was a difficult time; there were a lot of issues around the Good Friday Agreement and a lot of intra-unionist issues," she recalled. "Queen's has moved on a lot since then but I did face some abuse when I was canvassing. It was just young people trying to intimidate other young people; I didn't take the threats seriously.

"I identified as a unionist but I worked with people from all traditions in the college and students' union. I was really concerned with the students' issues, no matter what their background was."

After graduating, Emma won the Pat Finucane award for her studies at the Legal Institute at Queen's. As a young barrister, her key interests were - and continue to be - impact-based policy, project design and innovation, particularly in social policy.

She was heavily involved in projects such as the urban villages planned for areas across Belfast, and the OFMDFM signature project aimed at improving literacy and numeracy.

"It takes time to build a reputation as a junior barrister and to make money, so I taught part-time at the Ulster University's School of Law until 2007," she explained. "That Christmas, I was talking to someone from the DUP and they indicated there was an opportunity coming up for the type of job that needed legal research. I was always open to new opportunities, so I decided to do it for a year, or two at the most, then return to the Bar, but I never made it back."

Promptly appointed as special advisor to the Rev Ian Paisley when he was First Minister (whom she always refers to as Dr Paisley), she was part of the DUP talks team dealing with victims of the Troubles at both the Haass and Stormont House talks.

"It was an incredibly rewarding job in a time of great optimism. I worked with Dr Paisley through the development of a whole new set of institutions, in which he steered the peace process. It was very exciting and we got on very well. He was such a colossus from my childhood."

Having stayed in the job as special advisor to First Minister Peter Robinson, she is leaving the post at a critical juncture, in terms of the Nama controversy.

"The South Belfast seat is a great opportunity to have arisen," she said. "Jimmy Spratt did great work there and I'm coming in at an important time for welfare reform and paramilitary issues. I want to serve the constituency."

She smiles when asked to compare the reality of the role of special advisor to that conveyed in The West Wing and House of Cards TV dramas - which she and her husband, Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly, watch on box-sets. "I think people remember the role moreso from Yes Minister," she laughed. "It has changed and grown a lot in the last number of decades. Nick Clegg had 23 special advisors for the last election! There are all different types - my role was policy-driven."

Heavily involved in the formation of the DUP's 1928 Committee, which is focused on promoting the role of women within the party, she shies away from the label of feminist - "a loaded term" - and prefers to sees herself as an egalitarian. She toes the party line, however, when it comes to abortion and same-sex marriage rights. "I don't support the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland but I, along with many in the party, have compassion when it comes to the position on foetal abnormalities. I feel that many of the issues can be dealt with through guidance.

"And, in the same way I don't want to focus on orange and green issues, I don't want to go into the endlessly repeated arguments about gay marriage. I'm more concerned about the sexual and mental health issues for young people, and I want them to know the DUP is not against the young. We want to them to have the best education, housing and jobs, regardless of their sexuality."

Given the waning influence of the Catholic Church on governmental policy in the Republic, I wondered what her stance was - as a person of faith - on the separation of church and state here.

"There are issues that will cross over, and, in truth, there is a very important role for faith and the church," she said. "Beliefs and values do motivate you, but it's a matter of trying to do good and make a difference, and do no harm. It's about love of humanity and helping your fellow men and women. Those of no faith also have their values."

Away from such ethics, for someone who likes shopping, she is about to take a big hit in her salary, from almost £90,000 to around £50,000. "I like to change my style quite a bit and I'm guilty of following fast fashion on the high street, while investing in a good handbag and pair of shoes - and justifying them by endlessly wearing them!" she admits. "I have to be realistic about the drop in pay but doing something that makes a difference is more important. Pay isn't on my radar; I'm very fortunate to have been paid well in the past."

Political shop talk is not banned at home but the Pengellys like to switch off with good books and the aforementioned box-sets. The couple met in 2010 and married last summer. Agreeing, light-heartedly, that they're still in the first flush of romance, Emma describes Richard as "an absolute pro". So will he support her if she makes a bid for the party leadership some day?

"We'll see how this goes," she laughed. "It's going to be a big change. I'm a young newbie but I have learned so much from the First Minister - he is a brilliant tactician and strategist.

"I have stood back in amazement watching him - he doesn't have an easy job. But it will be baby steps for me, for the time being."

Belfast Telegraph

Read More

From Belfast Telegraph