Emma Pengelly

So, some of our MLAs on the hill are at it again. Like children in the playground there is a new row over the naming of a boat! DUP Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen has had a fisheries protection vessel’s Irish name replaced with its English translation. Banríon Uladh has been renamed Queen of Ulster. Arghhh!

Yet, in the hours in which this news broke the Clonard/Fitzroy Fellowship had the privilege of an inspirational evening with DUP MLA Emma Little Pengelly.

Let me stop you right there. Emma stopped us. She told a powerful story of canvassing for the last election. She knocked a door and a man appeared to tell her he wouldn’t vote for her as she was a bigot. Emma asked the man if he knew her. No, but she was DUP and then therefore was a bigot. 

Emma suggested that the man go back in the house and ask himself if the stereotyping that he had just done to someone he didn’t know might actually be bigotry! I am sure he didn’t vote for Emma as a result but the story stopped a few of us in our bigoted tracks as we listened to Emma’s story.

We have been doing these evening in the Clonard/Fitzroy Fellowship for some time. We give a politician a small, listening, critical but sympathetic audience to share their ambitions for a peaceful Belfast and Northern Ireland. 

Up until now we have had the five main parties and others. What is always fascinating is that what we hear on an evening like this is always different to what we hear on the news, literally last night, on the way home in the car! 

Emma was particularly impressive and engaging. She shared a personal story that put a background to what she works for now. That work had less to do with borders and flags and the changing of boat names and more to do with educational under achievement, health, poverty and social justice. 

As Clonard/Fitzroy we were as always keen to probe what she was doing in reconciliation and what priority it had on the DUP agenda. I sensed that we were in the presence of someone who has that higher on their agenda than others within her party. 

However, she was right to point out to us that most of her time in Stormont as a SPAD (Special Advisor) and then in the last year as an MLA has been constantly about compromise. Every letter she helped write for years had to have the approval of both DUP and Sinn Fein.

When we stop to think we should know that. A power sharing coalition compromises every day. Yet, we do not acknowledge that because we are constantly being throw headlines like the one about the boat name being changed. 

Of course, the boat name has been changed and therefore everything is not being compromised. Emma was very clear about the red lines that the DUP don’t want to cross. However, she was right to point out that most parties have red lines. Perhaps those of us listening were beginning to ask why our red lines seemed less entrenched than the DUP or Sinn Fein. Maybe there is a plank in the eye needing attended too.

Evenings like these often bring us back with the media. Emma shared the number of joint statements, particularly in education, that don’t get picked up by the media. The boat name changes always do. 

What I would love our TV channels to do would be to create talk shows that would allow an evening like Emma Pengelly At Clonard/Fitzroy. What if the media helped us humanise our politicians? What if they weren’t always having to shout at each other on our screens but we heard about their lives, their upbringing, their hobbies, their families? What if we found ourselves sympathising or even empathising with their brokenness or their joys? 

Another recurring theme in my involvement in peace making came through again last night. Meeting people, having a coffee, asking about their weekend. These are the ways that peace drips up. We cannot ask our politicians to come up with some grand plan that will suddenly take our peace process to the finish line. We need to begin ourselves. 

Emma was able to share how her views had changed over the last ten years as she has met the traditional other, even enemy, in committees etc. She pointed out that most everyone in the process has changed. She also got us to realise that in the short time we have had since 1994’s ceasefires we have come along way and cannot expect to be sprinting on a post conflict journey that will take decades.

So, I went home and watched The View and got angry again at the pettiness and seeming intransigence of the boat’s name change. Yet, I had another conversation to hold up against it, to give it perspective. We need more of that in the media. We all need our prejudices challenged. We need to know that for every sensationalist boat naming headline there is an incredible amount of working going on where our MLAs and ministers are working together to deliver a better Northern Ireland. 


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