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DUP leader accused of treating voters with ‘contempt’ as Emma Little-Pengelly returns to fill Donaldson’s seat at Stormont

SDLP’s Claire Hanna accuses Sir Jeffrey of turning his back on those who voted for him


Emma Little-Pengelly pictured on Friday morning as she arrives at Stormont (Presseye).

Emma Little-Pengelly pictured on Friday morning as she arrives at Stormont (Presseye).

New role: Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Emma Little-Pengelly at DUP conference in 2019. Credit: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

New role: Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Emma Little-Pengelly at DUP conference in 2019. Credit: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

AFP via Getty Images

SDLP's Claire Hanna. Credit: Liam McBurney

SDLP's Claire Hanna. Credit: Liam McBurney


Emma Little-Pengelly pictured on Friday morning as she arrives at Stormont (Presseye).

The DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly has made a dramatic return to frontline politics after departing from Stormont last year to focus on her legal career.

She will sign in at the Assembly on Friday as Lagan Valley MLA, being co-opted in place of  Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who is remaining in the House of Commons.

After her defeat by the SDLP’s Claire Hanna in South Belfast in the 2019 Westminster election, Ms Little-Pengelly was appointed as a special advisor to Arlene Foster in The Executive Office when devolution was restored a month later.

However, she announced her intention to step back from a political role after Edwin Poots became leader last May.

The SDLP has accused Sir Jeffrey of treating voters contemptuously with the co-option. By resigning as an MLA before even sitting in Stormont, he “makes our electoral process look like a bad joke”, the party said.

The announcement of Ms Little-Pengelly’s co-option came just hours before the Assembly is scheduled to have its first sitting on Friday.  The DUP will meet in the morning to decide if it will nominate a Speaker. Failing to do so will stop the Assembly functioning.

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Sources said it was important to keep the pressure on Downing Street over the Northern Ireland Protocol and Sir Jeffrey must “exert whatever leverage is available”. They suggested he may wish to see the text of draft legislation before moving.

The DUP is also refusing to enter a new Executive until the Government takes action against the protocol. Sir Jeffrey said Conservative Party figures had told him to expect movement on the issue “fairly soon”.

He said: “We are committed to making the political institutions work but we’re also clear that we need to see decisive action by the Government.” Asked whether his party would nominate a Speaker, he stated: “Our Assembly group will meet and come to final decisions on all of this (in the) morning.”

Announcing Ms Little-Pengelly’s co-option, he said: “I will continue as MP for Lagan Valley until the protocol issues are resolved. It is important the protocol is replaced with new arrangements that respect Northern Ireland’s place within the UK and, as the leader of unionism, that work is in London.

“Emma will be a first-class advocate for people and will work hard to advance the issues that matter to everyone in Lagan Valley. Emma is again stepping forward to help articulate the cause of the Union and I welcome her return to our ranks.”

Ms Little-Pengelly said:  “Sir Jeffrey has an important task to complete in addressing the continued problem of the protocol, which is causing untold damage to our economy and to political stability in Northern Ireland.

“This requires him to be in London and working closely with the UK Government.

“I have agreed to fill his seat in Lagan Valley at this time both to support this work and to ensure a continued high level of support and service to the constituents of Lagan Valley.

“It is a privilege to be asked to fulfil this role at this important time for unionism and for Northern Ireland. While Sir Jeffrey focuses on that immediate task, I look forward to serving the people of Lagan Valley with passion and commitment.”

However, SDLP MP Claire Hanna said it was disgraceful that voters had given their support to the DUP leader just a week ago and he was already being replaced. “Jeffrey Donaldson’s decision to resign his MLA seat just one week on from the election and before the Assembly has even sat for the first time shows contempt for the electorate in Lagan Valley,” she said.

“For weeks he urged people to give him their vote and elect him and now he has turned his back on those same voters. This move makes our electoral process look like a bad joke.

“Co-options have a legitimate purpose but it is not to allow individuals to hedge their bets. Jeffrey Donaldson’s behaviour throughout this process has been cavalier and dismissive of the electorate, the vast majority of whom voted for functioning government.” Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill said a new Speaker should be nominated and an Executive formed.

“There is no reason for that not to happen and it is not acceptable or not good enough that the DUP won’t turn up or won’t nominate for the position of Speaker or the title of First or Deputy First Ministers,” she said.

“The public want an Executive, want an Assembly. They want it working for them, they want money in their pockets to deal with the cost-of-living crisis, and we can do all of that whilst trying to make the smooth implementation of the protocol.

“I think it is incredulous that the DUP would even consider not nominating. The public just voted in an election for politicians to work together (and) to start to fix our broken health service.”

Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said: “The DUP’s latest reprehensible power-play, designed to cover up its own failings during the Brexit negotiations as well as for the sake of personal expediency in the case of its leader, is putting thousands of our most vulnerable people at risk. The health service cannot be fixed without an Executive in place.”

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