By Cate McCurry (PA)
Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly has defended her lack of electoral mandate, saying she cannot change the circumstances of her position but will “tackle” the big issues facing Northern Ireland.
Ms Little-Pengelly said she has received “thousands of messages” from the public urging her to work with her colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive to address the outstanding issues.
The Lagan Valley MLA accepted the DUP nomination to become the deputy First Minister and serve alongside First Minister Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill.
Ms Little-Pengelly was co-opted into the Assembly to replace Sir Jeffrey Donaldson after the May 2022 general election.
The DUP leader said at the time that he would remain as MP until the post-Brexit issues around the Northern Ireland protocol were resolved.
The powersharing institutions were restored last Saturday after a deal between the UK Government and the DUP to address unionist concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements, which included passing new legislation at Westminster.
Speaking on BBC Northern Ireland’s Sunday Politics show, Ms Little-Pengelly was asked about her lack of electoral mandate to serve in the Executive.
“All I can say is that I have been asked to do this role. I am approaching this role in the sense that we’ve got a significant programme of work to do,” she said.
“I am determined to use whatever time that there is, we’ve got three years left this mandate, that was what I am planning for in terms of driving through and supporting that change and delivery that we need to see.
“I can’t change the circumstances of my position, but as I indicated previously, regardless of the circumstances, I think what people in Northern Ireland want to see is us looking to the future, working together, tackling those big issues.
“That is what the public wants us to be focused on.
“In terms of the literally hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands of messages I’ve received, that is the core message. It is not an issue by any of these particular points. It is saying to me ‘we want you to try your best, to work hard and to make Northern Ireland work, to make the Executive work’.
“It is absolutely critical to get that delivery to challenge all of those big issues that happens within our public services and improve those for everyone in Northern Ireland.”
Meanwhile, Ms Little-Pengelly also said she will “get out and support” every person in Northern Ireland, regardless of their background or beliefs.
The DUP MLA, who attended the funeral of former taoiseach John Bruton in Co Meath on Saturday with Ms O’Neill, said there has been “nothing off the table” in previous events she has attended.
“In everything that I do, I will make clear that I am here to work for and to serve every person in Northern Ireland. Regardless of background, regardless of view, I will be working and tackling the big issues of health and education, tackling the big issues of childcare,” she added.
“That is something that benefits families no matter what their view is on the constitutional question, no matter what their community background or what their faith is.”
“Look, in my life I’m somebody who’s always worked with people and for people right across the community.
“When you said to me about doing something that was stretching, I don’t think that there’s anything for me that is off the table in terms of the things that I have done in the past, in relation to the constituencies I have represented.
“I have supported sporting clubs from across all communities, including in terms of the GAA.
“I will be looking at all invitations that come in and absolutely clear, I will be getting out there and supporting every single person in Northern Ireland.”
She added: “I am determined to build a positive relationship, not just with Michelle O’Neill, but all of my colleagues around that table because that’s what we need to do in order to move forward.
“We have to work constructively. Of course, we can’t predict what’s going to happen.
“Things will emerge. There will be challenges I’ve no doubt, but I think that firm commitment at this stage is what every member around that Executive table should do and I certainly will bring my absolute commitment to that.”