For someone who was barely known outside the Stormont bubble a week ago, Emma Pengelly hasn’t been out of the headlines since the DUP announced that she would be replacing Jimmy Spratt as their MLA for South Belfast.
Her appointment surprised just about everyone, including party members in south Belfast: so much so that one of them stopped me on the Cregagh Road and asked: “Who is this woman our party has just co-opted here?”
More surprises were to come, including the headline, “My father was a loyalist gunrunner”. He is Noel Little, a civil servant who worked for the Education Board in Armagh, as well as a former member of the UDR, and he was arrested in Paris in 1989 in connection with a plot to exchange missile technology from Short Brothers for South African guns. Along with two other men, he was remanded in custody for two years before receiving a three-year suspended sentence and a fine of 50,000 francs.
She was nine at the time and says: “Even as a child, I felt acutely that within my wider family, church and some in the community that what had happened was being frowned on. I don’t recall losing any friends, or any real conversation about it in school. But I do remember being upset for some time and my teacher paying me particular attention and giving me a hug. My mother, in particular, suffered — losing the household income, the public aspect of it and trying to cope with it with four very young children. I remember money being very tight, but also some friends and the church bringing food packages for us as a gift — particularly at Christmas.”
I ask her if her father’s background makes it easier to understand how people can get sucked into doing bad things and whether forgiveness and understanding have become part of her own psyche now: “To me, the focus should be on transformation. I don’t think having a past is an issue if people transform and move on.
“For many people, particularly victims and survivors, the critical part of that is around regret and repentance as part of that transformational journey.
“For others, actions speak louder than words. People must, at the very least, demonstrate by their actions that they have undergone transformative change. I feel passionately about not allowing the past or circumstance dictate outcomes for people — this applies equally to a past of poverty, disadvantage or educational failure.”
Emma Little was born in Dungannon Hospital on December 31, 1979 and grew up in Markethill. Her mum had worked in retail and her father was a civil servant. She has two sisters, both teachers, and a brother, who works in a car dealership, “but not in sales”.
Given what happened to her father, she still has very happy memories of growing up: “My mother loved Christmas and my favourite memories of my childhood are of Christmas — the decorations, winter dinners of stews and other comforting food, the Sunday School Christmas party and, of course, Christmas morning, presents and Santa. She made an incredible effort, and this was very much in the days when holiday celebrations were understated here. I still love Christmas, it is my favourite time of the year.”
She attended Markethill Primary School and Markethill High School, “where I had many inspirational teachers. I decided I wanted to be a barrister when I was about 11 years old and was determined to be that. Looking back, I don’t know where I got that notion from, but I stuck with that dream for 12 years and qualified as a barrister in 2003.
“I was evacuated from primary school on several occasions as the school was close to the local police station.
“Loss and fear were key characteristics in the community — my next-door neighbour was murdered in a car bomb outside of the town. In my primary school class of 25 or so pupils at school, two pupils lost their fathers to IRA attacks and another had their father seriously injured — this was over just a three-year period.
“The IRA shot him through the kitchen window in their farmhouse. This created considerable fear and we were never allowed to put on the light in the kitchen unless the curtains were pulled in case of an attack after this happened.”
Emma joined the DUP while she was at Queen’s University, Belfast, and was elected deputy president of the Students’ Union in 1998 — a time when unionists tended not to win elections there. In 2007, after a conversation with someone from the DUP about a position requiring legal research, she was appointed as a special advisor to Ian Paisley and remained in the post when Peter Robinson became First Minister.
She has been a key member of their talks team at both the Haass and Stormont House talks and has accompanied Robinson to the White House.
The shift from special advisor to MLA “came about through a series of discussions. Working in the political context, discussion around these types of issues are regularly on the agenda. The opportunity was there and I had worked on projects within OFMDFM that had huge potential in south Belfast — I think my passion and interest in the constituency had been clear.”
Peter Robinson clearly rates her and that’s why she is now an MLA. People who have worked with her also rate her and there is a very clear expectation that she’ll be a minister within the lifetime of the next Assembly.
The party has also made the calculation that she may be the “right kind” of candidate to consolidate their vote in South Belfast and put them in with a chance of taking a seat from the UUP — who underperformed there in May’s General Election.
But although she has been described by some as part of a new generation within the DUP — she describes herself as “fairly centralist; I would probably be slightly socially liberal and slightly right economically” — she seems generally supportive of DUP policy on issues like equal marriage, abortion and shared education as opposed to integrated education.
Given her background as an advisor, someone who saw the DUP/Sinn Fein relationship at close hand, I wonder if she is optimistic about the future: “The pathway towards normality is inevitably a long one — we can’t forget that we have been a deeply divided and traumatised community and it will take considerable time to achieve normality and reconciliation.
“We are far from unique in having to deal with this — all other countries that have been through something similar have faced these challenges and it takes a long time. In addition to that, the political system we have is very difficult, with forced coalitions between parties of dramatically different ideologies and mutual vetoes. I am optimistic that we will get there, but the system will have to change before it can be achieved.”
Reports of her appointment included words like “glamorous”, “willowy” and “the DUP’s answer to the UUP’s Jo-Anne Dobson”.
Does it bother her? “There seems to be much more interest in the appearance of women in the public eye more than men and I know many dislike it.
“That said, I don’t think women should feel pressure to suppress, or feel embarrassed, about the things many have a genuine interest in, such as fashion, just because it is supposedly deemed as ‘superficial’.
“There seems to be a view that women should shy away from things that are perceived as stereotypically female, or they won’t be taken seriously. This needs to change. Men aren’t at all embarrassed about chatting about football, or sport, even in work — and that is equally stereotypical and superficial.”
She married Richard Pengelly — Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health — last year: “We both know what we can and can’t talk about and we both respect that.
“It hasn’t been an issue at all — in fact, probably the opposite as it ensures we can focus on other things than work when we talk and spend time together.”
Emma Pengelly is going to be a very big player within the DUP’s Assembly team. She is going to be a high-profile spokesperson and, almost certainly, a minister fairly soon.
Which raises the obvious question: is she a future leader? All we can say at this point is that, out of nowhere, she’s now a major contender.
Born in 1979, her father was convicted for his part in a gunrunning plot
She is a qualified barrister
She is former deputy president of QUB Students’ Union
She has been a special advisor to both Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson
She is married to Richard Pengelly, Permanent Secretary at Department of Health
Since Monday, she has been a DUP MLA for South Belfast