A co-option into Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s Stormont seat surprised no one, but the DUP’s choice as its latest MLA certainly did.
Just when we were expecting low-key councillor Paul Rankin to make a re-appearance, in came the very high-profile Emma Little-Pengelly.
Her return to frontline politics had been floated by loyalist Jamie Bryson a fortnight ago. He told an anti-protocol rally in Bangor that Alliance’s Stephen Farry must be unseated and Little-Pengelly elected as North Down’s next MP.
A comeback arrived much sooner for the DUP woman who was sitting in TV studios as a pundit discussing the election results just six days ago.
She’ll be at the heart of Stormont again on Friday. If the executive is restored and Sir Jeffrey resigns as Lagan Valley MP to become Deputy First Minister, she is currently favourite to be the DUP candidate in the ensuing Westminster by-election.
It will be Little-Pengelly — not Paul Givan — versus Sorcha Eastwood if the leadership has its way. Her appeal as an Assembly co-optee for Sir Jeffrey is obvious. He has represented Lagan Valley for a quarter of a century, and it rewarded him handsomely last Thursday when he topped the poll with almost 13,000 votes — 5,000 ahead of his nearest rival.
Putting a low-level councillor in his place at Stormont, or an MLA defeated in last week’s election like Peter Weir, could have been interpreted negatively by voters. He needed to choose a senior, substantial figure who would make constituents think they were being respected.
As a barrister, Little-Pengelly brings the legal expertise Sir Jeffrey needs in his ongoing Brexit negotiations with the government. Less than a quarter of the DUP’s newly elected MLAs are women, and the party is acutely aware that it needs more female faces. There had been talk last year of Brenda Hale returning to Lagan Valley but she is now living in France.
Little-Pengelly is intelligent, an able media performer and, most importantly, is trusted by Sir Jeffrey. Paul Givan had seemed the natural candidate in a Westminster by-election but old wounds are still a long way from healing after last year’s internal battles.
At the 2019 general election, Sorcha Eastwood — then just a councillor of seven months standing — ate into Sir Jeffrey’s majority.
On 35% to Alliance’s 24% in last week’s Assembly poll, the DUP still has a substantial lead but add in a 12% nationalist vote that could rally behind Eastwood in a by-election and it becomes more complicated.
The DUP likely believes that a female candidate — and one not from the party’s fundamentalist wing — would broaden its appeal against Eastwood.
However, the local DUP association, which has a Poots/Givan majority, will probably disagree and will want the former First Minister as the selection. Givan was born in Lisburn and has represented the constituency for his entire political life.
Resentment may surface among the party’s grassroots about the woman who was previously South Belfast MP moving into Lagan Valley — the reverse journey to the one made by Edwin Poots.
After her defeat in South Belfast three years ago, Little-Pengelly said she wanted a change of scenery. She is now going places — and it’s not to the jungle.