Northern Ireland

Emma Little-Pengelly: Who is the new deputy first minister?

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly
Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

While Emma Little-Pengelly’s political career has had its ups and downs, the co-opted DUP MLA for Lagan Valley has been nominated by her party for the post of Stormont deputy first minister.

The 44-year-old, a former student of Markethill High School and Queen’s University Belfast, qualified as a barrister in 2003.

Who is Emma Little-Pengelly’s father, Noel Little?

While still a child, her father Noel Little was one of three men arrested in Paris in 1989 in connection with a plot to exchange a missile stolen from Shorts for South African guns. After spending two years on remand he received a suspended sentence and a fine.

Peter Robinson, who at the time was DUP deputy leader, was later photographed alongside Little at an Ulster Resistance rally, wearing a beret and military fatigues.

In a newspaper article which she penned herself, Ms Pengelly (35) refers fleetingly to her father’s arrest – though notably not his conviction.

She spoke of facing difficult situations, such as poverty, bereavement and ill health.

“In my case it was the sudden and unexpected arrest of my father in Paris, leading to him losing his job, being away from us for some years and the subsequent profound impact on my family’s life,” she wrote in the Belfast Telegraph.

“What my experience has taught me is that personal circumstances need not dictate the pathway for our lives.”

Co-option as an MLA for South Belfast

DUP annual conference
DUP MLA Emma Little-Pengelly at a previous DUP annual conference PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA

Ms Little-Pengelly was co-opted into Stormont in 2015 when she succeeded Jimmy Spratt as an MLA for Belfast South.

In October 2015, she was appointed as a junior minister in the Northern Ireland Executive Office and went on to successfully defend her Assembly seat the following year.

She became chairperson of the Stormont finance committee following this election.

However, she then lost the seat in the March 2017 Assembly election as the total number of seats in Belfast South was reduced from 6 to 5, trailing her running mate, the late Christopher Stalford, by 15 votes at the time of her elimination.

One-time DUP MP

But just three months later, she defeated the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell in the Westminster election to become the constituency’s MP.

Ms Little-Pengelly subsequently lost the seat in the 2019 general election to the SDLP’s Claire Hanna.

Announcing she wanted a change of scenery, she said she planned to travel to Borneo to volunteer in an orangutan wildlife sanctuary and posted a photo of a project that helped captive orangutans and sun bears on the island of Borneo.

But weeks later she was offered a job as Arlene Foster’s special adviser in The Executive Office.

Former DUP leader Arlene Foster and Emma Little-Pengelly. Picture by Mal McCann
Former DUP leader Arlene Foster and Emma Little-Pengelly. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

She accepted, and her trip to the jungle was put on hold.

In June 2021, she said she was stepping away from her DUP role after being “deeply saddened” over tensions following Edwin Poots’ election as leader. She is regarded as a close friend of Mrs Foster and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

She has complained about being trolled on social media. In 2017 she said: “I’ve only been ‘in politics’ for 16 month, it has been one long ‘roast me’ - brutal. Sad. Hateful. I remain a good kind person. Goodbye.”

Emma Little-Pengelly, the barrister

By the end of 2021 Ms Little-Pengelly was back in the High Court, as she resumed her career as a barrister.

Lagan Valley MLA

A brief period as a political pundit, in May 2022 she made a surprise comeback when she was co-opted into Sir Jeffrey’s Assembly seat in Lagan Valley, a seat he had held for 25 years.

On the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April, it was Ms Little-Pengelly who represented the party at the high-profile Queen’s University event.

Emma Little-Pengelly attending the three-day international conference at Queen’s University Belfast to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (Niall Carson/PA)
Emma Little-Pengelly attended the three-day international conference at Queen’s University Belfast to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. PICTURE: NIALL CARSON/PA

Facing criticism from other speakers at the event over the DUP’s Stormont boycott, she said: “I am not here to bow to presidents and prime ministers”.

Deputy first minister speculation

In June 2023, Ms Little-Pengelly was appointed to the DUP’s officer board, which makes key decisions in the party.

Political party's at Hillsborough Castle for talks with Chris Heaton-Harris
Emma Little-Pengelly pictured with DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson and party colleague Gavin Robinson at Hillsborough during previous talks to restore devolved government. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

Ms Little-Pengelly was appointed to the DUP officer board alongside fellow MLA Diane Forsythe, replacing Mid Ulster councillor Paul McLean and Lord Weir respectively.

It came amid speculation that Ms Little-Pengelly could become deputy first minister if the Executive was restored and on February 3 that became a reality.

Patricia Mac Bride, an Irish news columnist, had written that the appointment of Ms Little-Pengelly was “not as far fetched as it might seem.”

“Regarded as an ally of Sir Jeffrey, her selection was seen as a significant move by the DUP leader to appoint another one of his supporters to the board.”

She wrote: “For the DUP her nomination would serve a dual purpose. First of all, Jeffrey Donaldson would not have to face the ignominy of serving alongside a Sinn Féin first minister. Let’s face it, the DUP are the only people who have always thought that the first minister had more importance and they don’t have the skill to re-orient the mindset of their electorate to see it differently now after years of scaremongering.

“The second purpose would be to allow the DUP Westminster wing to stay in charge of the party and every weekend when they fly back from London, they will undo whatever has been done or agreed during the week. Arlene Foster could write a book about how that story goes,” she added.

She has been a recent regular attender at talks with Northern Ireland Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris aimed at the restoration of Stormont.

Who is Emma Little-Pengelly married to?

She is married to Richard Pengelly, who is the permanent secretary at the Department of Justice.