‘Politicians can make a difference if we are committed enough’

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 2nd March 2016''Junior Minister and the DUP's MLA for South Belfast Emma Penally pictured in Stormont Castle. '''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 2nd March 2016''Junior Minister and the DUP's MLA for South Belfast Emma Penally pictured in Stormont Castle. '''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Arriving at junior minister Emma Pengelly’s office at Stormont Castle, the walls are bedecked with pricey art and a press officer is ready to chaperone the new South Belfast MLA as a photographer captures her smart profile.

Pengelly, whose Twitter feed displays a real commitment to the grassroots political work of knocking on doors, attending myriad events promoting better educational targets and tougher measures to protect animal welfare, seems thoroughly at ease as a public representative.

The sprightly 36-year-old, wife of permanent secretary for health Richard Pengelly, has certainly had apt preparation: a qualified barrister, she was a special adviser for the late Dr Ian Paisley, then for Peter Robinson for almost a decade, and confesses to a love of policy. Though some of the DUP party faithful were less than happy with her co-option - Ruth Patterson was vocal in expressing her opposition, arguing that Pengelly had not had the experience of running the gauntlet of an election - she reminds me of numerous co-options that did not generate the same negative media attention - Fearghal McKinney, Claire Hanna and Mairtin O’Muilleoir are just a few examples - and certainly it is hard not to feel that part of the bemused reaction was because Pengelly is female, young and attractive.

“It is strange getting used to being in front of the camera after spending so many years behind the scenes,” she confides, not a hair out of place, broad, ready smile and her nails painted hot pink.

“But I am very happy to do it when I am at events where there is an important message I want to get across. And with social media, politicians have to be that bit more accessible than might have been the case years ago.

“It’s also a great way to hear from our electorate too though, and to find out about the issues that matter to them.”

Today Pengelly, who was born and raised in Markethill but is now based in Belfast, is wearing a blush pink blazer and a floral dress, chic high heels and immaculate make-up, her hair in cascading curls. She is clearly poised and image savvy, aware of the power of the camera-ready profile.

Pengelly describes an almost storybook upbringing - straight As at Markethill High School, A-levels at a Portadown college, summers spent outdoors on her bike or rollerblades, reading a lot of Enid Blyton and sharing a bedroom with her sister, always handing her homework in on time. But her background has not been without problems - her loyalist activist father Noel Little was absent from her life between the ages of nine to 11 following his arrest for gun trafficking.

I tell her I am getting a sense of a very straitlaced adolescence - outdoorsy fun, warm milk and early to bed; but, indeed, it’s hard to imagine Pengelly running wild as a teen, she appears so utterly composed and well adjusted - even though she laughs at this characterisation.

Surely, I say, she must have had some bad habits?

“Not really. I think I was very into current affairs and much more political than I think a lot of young people growing up today might be. I think the Troubles made a lot of us here in Northern Ireland politically attuned before our time. But I was interested in UK and US politics too. I remember the Anglo-Irish Agreement, I remember seeing Margaret Thatcher on TV. I would work my way through four or five books from the visiting mobile library each week.”

Diligent Emma kept her head down, studying law at Queen’s University before being called to the bar and then joining the DUP as a student activist. Her legal chops are clearly impressive and soon Pengelly was advising those in highest office.

She seems chatty and warm, approachable and affable, and certainly no intellectual slouch.

“I decided at about 11 that I really wanted to be a lawyer. I’m not sure where that came from - probably I picked up the idea from some TV show - but that was it. I had made up my mind.

“My mum was very supportive of my ambition and never once made me feel that I should doubt my ability to achieve or to feel that it would be harder for me as a woman. She simply told me that if that was my goal then I would have to work very hard and so I did.”

Her female role models include Margaret Thatcher, writer Iris Murdoch and African American poet Maya Angelou.

“I love Maya Angelou’s poetry but also I am so inspired by how she triumphed over a very difficult upbringing. Maya Angelou popularised such an important message to young people in difficult circumstances across America and the rest of the world - that you really can change your life no matter how dire the circumstances you might have been born into. I love that, the idea that at any moment you can actually stop and say: ‘This is not how my story ends.’ That is so empowering. Whatever happens in the past you can draw a line under it, leave it behind and then move forwards and make your life different.”

Though many would indeed suggest that politics remains very much a boy’s club, Pengelly has never felt hindered by her gender at all.

“I never had this idea that women could not be in politics at all really. The idea that there was a glass ceiling that had to be smashed through never seemed real to me growing up because here was a woman, Margaret Thatcher, as prime minister of Britain.

“I have never felt that a life in law or in politics was inaccessible to me as a woman or that it would be that bit harder for me to achieve as a woman at all.

“I have never really been of the opinion that a woman needs a woman to represent them in politics, however I do feel like we need to have as broad a representation of people in politics as possible - different genders, different backgrounds - that will lead to more effective and fairer policy.

“And of course I would love to see more women entering into any professions or areas of research that are typically considered male-dominated.”

Naturally it was the idea of being able to fulfil her civic duty and help build a better society that pushed her from courts to Stormont in December 2006, just as institutions were becoming devolved.

Despite the huge amounts of work involved in affecting political change Pengelly is a diehard optimist about the possibilities of public office.

“The frustration with politics can be that you can only do so much and whatever you do you can be pretty sure it will be met with criticism. It is one of those professions where you can make a difference if you are really committed and really hardworking. It was the thought that you might actually be able to affect change - no matter how small - if you worked hard enough, that did make me want to stay in politics despite all its challenges. There are huge, difficult issues to grapple with - improving our education system, protecting the NHS, dealing with legacy issues here in Northern Ireland, helping victims of the Troubles acquire justice. But we can make a difference if we are committed enough.

“Government should be committed to providing people with excellent public services rather than being stuck on the orange and green issues that I very much feel are not considered as important to people of my generation. And that is not to say that I am not sensitive to legacy matters or dealing with our past in an appropriate way.”

Outside of work she describes herself as a ‘girly girl’, very interested in fashion, going for coffee, walking her beloved dog Poppy and spending time with her other half.

She has a group of supportive friends, she confides, who get frustrated by her relentless need to problem solve.

“Sometimes they tell me they just want to talk about the problem not find a solution!” she said.

“Even if they don’t agree with my stance on something they are very pleased to see a younger woman succeeding in politics,” she adds.

Emma, despite being able to expatiate at length on complex political issues, is also easy company, friendly and voluble. Her profession is clearly her raison d’etre, at least at this moment in her life, but there’s another side to her too.

“I’ve always been very into fashion,” she smiles. “And my mother always told me growing up that you can never be over dressed or over educated.

“I love shopping. I love going for walks in the park and catching up with loved ones. I enjoy those things - definitely.”

She began her political career as a policy adviser on issues like victims and survivors, dealing with the past and legacy issues, tackling poverty, and spending a lot of time on the ground going out and speaking to people, hearing what they wanted to see, liasing with ministers and helping in the complex process of drawing up legislation.

Initially she had planned only to work in politics for a year or two but ended up staying and becoming involved in a range of discussions with the party on matters such as parades and dealing with the past.

“I am passionate about improving our education system, protecting the NHS, dealing with legacy issues and with animal welfare here in Northern Ireland.

“As far as I am concerned I have a job to do and I intend to do it. I am here to represent the constituents of South Belfast and I intend to do that to the best of my ability.”

What does Emma like to do on her day off? “A day off?” she laughs, “What’s that!” And it’s clear she is something of a workaholic.

“I do admit it can be hard to put my phone down and switch off in front of a good box set.

“I’m someone who likes to debate things, who is passionate about a range of causes, and I can probably bore people to death with certain issues I go into so much detail but really it’s because I am just dedicated to building a better Northern Ireland.

“As a politician I have found representatives across the spectrum to all be very civil and we all work together on cross-party groups so the idea of a consistently adversarial politics no longer reflects the reality of day to day life at Stormont. I love being constructive and focusing on the positive in politics.”