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Why we need to judge new MLA on her own merits and abilities

By Fionola Meredith

Published 01/10/2015

Noel Little was a loyalist terrorist. He was convicted in Paris over 20 years ago for his part in an Ulster Resistance gunrunning plot.

Now his daughter, Emma Pengelly, is the new DUP MLA for South Belfast. Does it matter? Do the crimes of the father define the life of the daughter?

Some might say it does matter. They might argue that the idea of the family is powerful in Ireland, north and south, and that families tend to stick together: emotionally, politically, ideologically.

They might expect to see a continuity between generations; the beliefs and values of a father handed down to his offspring, and to their offspring, on and on in one unwavering line.

That's often how it works, isn't it? The prejudices taken in with mother's milk, or at father's knee, are frequently the ones that last a lifetime.

But that's to discount an individual's ability to think and decide and make choices, political or otherwise, for his or herself. It's wrong automatically to assume that because one's parents hold a strong belief, that the children will embrace it too.

Sometimes it is the reverse: children renouncing a family creed in order to assert their own independence of mind.

I do not know Emma Pengelly. I don't know what she believes. I certainly don't identify with her kind of party politics.

But I think that she deserves as fair a chance as anyone to be judged, not on her family connections, but on her own abilities as a politician.

MLAs who are co-opted into Stormont - as Pengelly has been, following the departure of Jimmy Spratt - face a particular challenge, and are especially subject to public scrutiny because they have no direct electoral mandate.

They must work over and above others in order to establish themselves and justify their position.

As a woman in an intensely masculinist environment, which has learned not to openly disparage and disregard women representatives, but retains a thoroughgoing scepticism of female authority, Pengelly will also have to fight to find her place.

Not that I imagine she's a delicate wallflower. Pengelly is a barrister by training. And here's an interesting fact: in 2003, when she was a 23-year-old law student, she received the prestigious Patrick Finucane Bursary for finishing top of her class at Queen's in the area of criminal indictment.

Unionists protested about the name of the award, but Pengelly accepted it nonetheless. Which may indicate somebody who thinks for herself, or somebody who is tremendously ambitious, or somebody who is unhampered by the usual allegiances. It may even indicate all three.

Of course, Pengelly's time as a (very well-paid) special adviser to both Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson means that she will know all the complex Stormont machinations inside out.

But the roles of political adviser and politician are quite different, and it's not easy to make a transition between the two.

Regarding her father's criminal past, Pengelly is frank.

"I neither wear my experience with a badge of shame nor a badge of pride. It's simply part of my childhood, a part I could do nothing to change."

She says that she is thankful that she has had a "challenging and difficult" journey because it has taught her "important lessons about the dangers of judging people on their circumstances".

Pengelly adds that there is no place in Northern Ireland for paramilitary activity, and that her father is "very much on that page".

So let's evaluate Pengelly on her own merits. It's true that her father could have armed the UDA and the UVF with his plot, which thankfully failed. But his daughter must be judged as her own woman.

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