The DUP’s Deputy First Minister and the democratic deficit…

On Saturday I was at home sat watching live coverage as Stormont lurched back to life, when I heard a knock at the door and in came my 70-year-old mum. At this stage, Emma Little-Pengelly was on her feet in the Chamber on the TV, and I hadn’t even had a chance to offer my mum a cup of tea when she sat down and immediately said, “She’s not even elected. How does that work? They’re a disgrace.” She meant the DUP and their nomination of Emma Little-Pengelly as Deputy First Minister. Then, unprompted, she listed the RHI scandal, the Iris Robinson ‘abomination’ debacle and Ian Paisley Junior’s penchant for all expense paid holidays in rapid succession.

I quickly worked out that in her mind, all of these scandals embody the DUP’s current brand. The co-option of a Deputy First Minister without being elected, has seemingly been added to the list of unpalatable things the party has inflicted on Northern Ireland throughout her lifetime, with my mum correctly identifying a democratic deficit. These aren’t the supportive statements you’d expect from a woman that was born and grew up on Methuen Street on the Lower Newtownards Road (now demolished). Brought up in a deeply working-class loyalist/unionist area, you might expect her to exhibit some of the more-right wing, religious fundamentalist-driven behaviour that you see from flag waving loyalists protesting at, well, anything these days, but not in this case.

Listening to DUP acolytes, including Dame Arlene Foster on a podcast later that day state that Emma Little-Pengelly was the most qualified for the job due to her time in The Executive Office as a SpAD and later Junior Minister, I began to believe it until I realised that Paul Givan himself, the previous actual First Minister might have been a better suited (and actually elected) candidate. Little-Pengelly’s loyalty to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also majored in commentator pronouncements of her suitability, which inadvertently highlighted that the party is in fact deeply split, simply because it implicitly means there are MLAs that are equally disloyal to him as leader.

It was then that my mum pointed out something that I had been thinking, namely that she thought the DUP had selected Emma Little-Pengelly because none of them had the “balls” (not my words) to serve as Deputy First Minister themselves. She intimated that she thought the DUP’s pick was their, to coin another phrase, useful idiot, only there to be used, and expressed concern that she hoped Little-Pengelly knew what she was in for. My mum then noted that surely if she was thinking it, then there had to be others, to which I agreed. In the game where perceptions are critical, I thought it a valid criticism.

I have since come to the conclusion that the DUP have erred in judgement…again. Indeed, I did wonder what Emma Little-Pengelly was bringing to the table in terms of ability, so took a look at historic electoral performances, comparing her to her First Minister counterpart Michelle O’Neill.

Figure 1 immediately demonstrates that Michelle O’Neill has significantly more elected experience, increasing her personal vote share in NI Assembly elections in Mid Ulster from 14.5% to 21% since 2007, a strong upward trajectory. Comparably, Emma Little-Pengelly lacks the years of graft at the publicly accountable coalface and demonstrated downward trajectories in both NI Assembly and UK General Elections that she contested; she is most certainly the junior of the two in terms of experience, with Michelle O’Neill amassing nearly a decade more time in the public eye. In fact, Little-Pengelly lost both seats, losing one of only two seats the DUP held in South Belfast in 2017, which they were subsequently unable to recover in 2019, and spectacularly lost her Westminster seat in 2019 when the SDLP’s Claire Hanna decimated her majority with the help of Sinn Fein not running in the South Belfast constituency.

It appears therefore, that the DUP’s Deputy First Minister has form for being literally unelectable. It suggests that the importance the DUP place on this Executive formation is low from the outset and further, that their use of an unelected Deputy First Minister is intended to devalue the role and institutions themselves. This may be indicative of the Executive’s lifespan in the short-medium term and aligns with DUP apprehension at being left with no option but the less than desirable Deputy First Minister position.

The optics of placing Emma Little-Pengelly, the DUP’s electoral failure, in one of the highest offices cannot be understated when attempting to understand the DUP’s strategy here. Is it that they simply do not expect big things from their Deputy First Minster, or that she will make a suitable scapegoat when it all goes wrong, or both? Since before 2016 the party has struggled to make coherent political judgements, instead repeatedly trying to save face and stage manage their decline.

I am sure that many people, like my mum, interpret the co-opting of a Deputy First Minister to be undemocratic in itself, and yet another short-term, bad political choice for the party, adding to an ever growing list. That is, despite the system allowing for it, it was not specifically designed for this scenario and extends beyond the spirit of the provision. Clearly, for some unionists like my mum, they believe it to be democratically illegitimate for their community to be led by an unelected leader in Stormont; the very fact that it is happening only works to focus attention on just how desperate unionism’s largest party has become. Indeed, some may recall that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson indicated that he would in fact take the role himself in Stormont, but has instead opted to retain his Westminster seat and the exclusive life outside NI that he has become accustomed to – a real man of both his word and the people…

Perceptions are important, and the DUP’s public relations strategy has been amongst the most cringe inducing and wholly reactive in recent history; it has been for a significantly protracted period and has garnered little positive sentiment in the process. Although the Executive appears to be new and refreshed, and parties are at pains to paint it as such, one should not forget that when the platitudes fade, the DUP is still the same that collapsed it two years ago. Despite the multiple emergent red flags, at least devolved government has returned, but for my mum, the political choice to appoint an unelected Deputy First Minister was a step too far. Whatever happens next, we wish Emma Little-Pengelly all the best in her new position; it is what she makes of it.


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