Martin McGuinness, an eminent icon of Irish political life, has died in his native Derry. From the terraced streets of the Bogside to the salubrious surroundings of Stormont, the once undisputed bastion of Ulster unionism, agendaNi reflects upon one man’s political odyssey. At the age of 21 Martin McGuinness had risen to second in command...
Emma Little Pengelly
Formerly a Special Adviser in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, Emma Little Pengelly was co-opted into the Assembly in 2015 and assumed position as a Junior Minister. She was subsequently elected as an MLA for the Belfast South constituency in 2016.
How did your career in politics begin?
I grew up in Markethill in County Armagh during the 80s and 90s. It was a small rural town just on the edge of south Armagh. The town suffered considerably during the Troubles and it was a very politicised environment throughout those decades.
I never remember a time where I didn’t have some level of political awareness, although in those early years it was very much in relation to the constitutional politics of Northern Ireland. The TV news bulletins and newspapers were a constant in my home, and though the focus was on Northern Ireland there was much coverage of Prime Minister Thatcher, wider UK and Irish politics and US President Reagan.
This all contributed to an early interest in politics that would grow into a passion.
Although I would have been active a little bit when I was younger, it was really at Queen’s University Belfast that I first become fully involved. I sat on the Student Council of the Student’s Union from my first year as a law student also representing my class on the various liaison forums with teaching staff.
I became chairperson of the Democratic Unionist Association and stood for the sabbatical post of Deputy President of the Student’s Union (on a joint ticket with Simon Hamilton as President candidate!). Surprisingly I won and the university allowed me to defer my place at the Bar course in order to do the role for a year. This was hugely enjoyable and opened my eyes to many different aspects of political advocacy and representation.
After graduating I practiced as a Barrister for a number of years while retaining my interest in politics, helping and supporting behind the scenes. In winter 2006 I was approached and asked if I would consider becoming one of the advisers to a ‘Preparation for Government’ committee that had been established by the British Government (there was no devolution at this stage). I decided to take the post for a short period of time, from there I was asked to become one of the First Minister’s Special Advisers in anticipation of devolution. This was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse and subsequently I also served as an adviser to Rt Hon Peter Robinson when he was First Minister. After serving as a SPAD for almost nine years, I took the jump and went into elected politics!
What are your most notable achievements to date?
Personally, achieving my qualification as a Barrister is one of my proudest moments.
Politically, I loved working in my role of developing policy and helping design and shape initiatives. Working collaboratively with officials, I was one of the authors of the Executive’s good relations strategy – Together: Building a United Community. I also created and designed a number of the key initiatives and signature projects both of T:BUC and of the wider ‘Delivering Social Change Agenda’.
In terms of process change, I am proud of the work I contributed to in order to bring about an outcomes focused, evidence based creative and collaborative approach to policy – particularly through Delivering Social Change.
In relation to specific policies, I was an active member of the Historic Institutional Abuse Inquiry project team and helped design a number of key elements. The inquiry has, thus far, worked very well while other jurisdictions have struggled. This is good for victims here and I hope this will produce meaningful results.
Probably the thing I am proudest of though is the creation of, design and the obtaining support and funds for the ‘Numeracy and Literacy Scheme’ under our ‘Delivering Social Change’ agenda – this provided a refreshed focus on these key issues, supported new young teachers to get jobs and produced excellent results. Knowing thousands of young people have at least a grade C in English and/or maths because of this initiative really touches me and reinforces why we are all involved in politics here.
What challenges have you faced transitioning from SPAD to MLA?
Undoubtedly the more public role has been the biggest change. I was able to get away with being a policy ‘wonk’ beavering away behind the scenes before, but this new role requires much more media focus.
It was also difficult leaving policy areas that I had been heavily involved with for many years, including initiatives I had created or policies I had helped write. In one way it was like letting go of your own child!
What is unique about representing Belfast South?
South Belfast is an incredibly diverse constituency with so many different areas. The challenge is trying to pull that all together and ensure we are all working together as communities and politicians. I love the cultural richness and offerings we have in South Belfast, the fantastic schools and universities and economically we drive the agenda across Belfast and Northern Ireland. However, there are always the challenges of ensuring those in need don’t get lost amongst the relative affluence, but also that those perceived as ‘well off’ are fairly treated and get the services they also deserve.
What are your priorities going forward?
I am committed to a positive vision for everyone in Northern Ireland – with the aim of bringing about positive transformation and delivering a better and brighter future for Northern Ireland. This will mean a focus on building a Northern Ireland with excellent public services, supporting those in need and tackling the huge challenges within the health services and education. I want to ensure we help all of our young people to reach their full potential and succeed in life. I want to ensure we grow our economy and create a stable, strong Northern Ireland.
My priorities in the next few years include bringing forward my Private Members’ Bill on Animal Cruelty, advocating and producing ideas in relation to tackling Educational Underachievement (I am Chair of the All Party Group), and continuing with my Finance brief ensuring effective budgeting, public services and transformation across the system. Most of all of course will be my continued service to the people of Belfast South.
What are your interests outside of the political sphere?
I am an avid reader (and have been from a child). I love relaxing with a good fiction book and try to read every night before bed for at least half an hour as it calms my mind!
I love exploring new places and cities. I am a pet lover and enjoy walks with my dog, Poppy. I also love eating a lovely meal with good company!