Patricia Mac Bride: Emma Little Pengelly as deputy first minister has a certain logic for DUP

Appointing Emma Little Pengelly as deputy first minister would serve a dual purpose for the DUP. Picture: Kelvin Boyes
Appointing Emma Little Pengelly as deputy first minister would serve a dual purpose for the DUP. Picture: Kelvin Boyes

In a platform piece in this newspaper on Tuesday, the secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris wrote that if an executive is not formed by October 28, he will come under a legal duty to call further assembly elections.

He said: “I will not take this action lightly, but the people of Northern Ireland are facing a challenging period due to high energy prices and cost of living pressures. They deserve an accountable, Executive-led government.”

He is absolutely right, of course. No one in the Westminster government is going to have the best interests of this part of Ireland at the forefront of their mind as we face into a cold winter of discontent. The best way to mitigate the consequences of inflation and poverty is to have locally elected ministers who have the ability to make decisions that put the needs of local communities first.

Heaton-Harris went on to talk about how he understood the protocol was still “causing real problems” and that a solution was needed and favouring a negotiated settlement with the EU but with the threat of ongoing legislation in Westminster being progressed as a second option.

It’s worth noting that Heaton-Harris said it was his legal duty to call an election if an executive is not formed, but he didn’t actually say that is what he would do. Rather it seemed a setting out of options to appease the neighbours both to the west and to the east.

The EU wants to get Brexit done at this stage in a way that the British always said they did but never knew what that actually meant. There is no sense that there is any change in the position of acting as a bloc so any notion that they will cast Ireland adrift in order to placate Britain is nonsense.

Britain should have responded to the latest round of EU legal actions by September 22 and it is likely a few weeks grace will have been given owning to the changing of the guard, both in Downing Street and Buckingham Palace. But the period of mourning is now officially over and the affairs of state have to be dealt with.

Sinn Féin and Alliance will be relatively sanguine about a winter election. The SDLP and Ulster Unionists might see it as a chance to canvass for transfers to win back some lost seats. The DUP will not want to go up against the TUV in case Jim Allister learned the lesson of being simply a one-man band and begins to give his other candidates a profile and a platform in order to hoover up more anti-protocol votes.

As for the neighbours to the west, the noises coming from the White House strongly indicate that President Joe Biden intends to visit these shores next spring to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. America did a lot of heavy lifting during those negotiations and they want to be able to claim credit for that. Not something you can do if you’re being shown around Stormont by a docent and not the DUP deputy first minister and her Sinn Féin first minister colleague.

Yes, I did say “her” because it seems increasingly likely that when the DUP do return to Stormont, it will not be Jeffrey Donaldson at the helm but rather his party colleague Emma Little Pengelly.

The suggestion that Emma Little Pengelly might become deputy first minister was first made by journalist Amanda Ferguson on the day of her co-option into the Lagan Valley seat on May 12. The seat had been won by Donaldson, who decided not to give up his Westminster role.

It is not as far fetched as it might seem. Little Pengelly is no stranger to the Executive Office, having served as a special adviser to both Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster during their terms as first minister.

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.

The bigger challenge for the DUP is how they sell going back into the executive to their electorate. It’s a given that Jim Allister will berate them for it, so they should just expect to suck that up.

The best solution is the 'greater good' argument. They simply say in the face of an unprecedented cost of living crisis, it would be irresponsible to leave it to London to decide what is best for the north and that they will continue to lobby on the protocol.

Honesty might actually be the best policy for once.