Northern Ireland

Claire Sugden puts faith in the subtle approach as she assumes justice ministry

Claire Sugden
Image caption Claire Sugden has been assured she will have the 'full support' of the first and deputy first ministers

Claire Sugden will not have to look too far or wait too long for a controversial issue to raise its head in the world of justice.

The hugely contentious area of abortion is one of them.

The previous justice minister, David Ford, tried and failed to change the law.

When asked on Wednesday how she would deal with the issue, Ms Sugden said her approach would be "subtle".

But subtle is not a word many would use to describe the debate on proposed changes to the law during the past year.

The new minister was assured she has and will have the "full confidence" and "full support" of the first and deputy first ministers.

That is something that Mr Ford never enjoyed.

With the DUP and Sinn Féin diametrically opposed on the proposed changes to abortion law, that declaration of support will be strongly tested.

On another contentious issue - same sex marriage - Sugden has said she plans to talk to executive ministers behind closed doors in attempt to change the approach to the issue.

Of course, prisons are also highly contentious.

As the daughter of a former prison officer, Ms Sugden will be more aware than most of the complexities and dangers involved.

Two prison officers, David Black and Adrian Ismay, were killed during Mr Ford's time as minister, and the threat remains high.

She will also be aware that her family background means every decision she makes about prisons, and the staff who work in them, will be subjected to intense scrutiny.

A major reform programme has been under way for a number of years and a huge amount of work remains to be done.

It was only seven months ago that a team of inspectors described Northern Ireland's high security prison at Maghaberry near Lisburn as one of the most dangerous in Europe.

A follow up report in February said the situation had stabilised and improved, but it was far from a clean bill of health.

Getting the funding needed to implement comprehensive reform, and improve the fabric of the prison estate, will be a huge challenge.

Image caption David Ford had said publicly that he could only do the job of justice minister with the assistance of a very able Special Advisor

It will also be another test of the promised support of Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness.

Policing is another area of intense public and political scrutiny.

'Huge task'

The chief constable is operationally independent, but it is up to the justice minister to set high level policy objectives and, most importantly, to determine the PSNI's annual budget.

George Hamilton has said several times since his appointment that budget cuts have had a huge impact on the ability of his officers to do their jobs.

So the new minister probably will not have to wait long for a chunky business case to land on her desk setting out why the PSNI needs more resources.

Ms Sugden faces a huge task.

Mr Ford has said publicly that he could only do the job of justice minister with the assistance of a very able Special Advisor (SPAD), and the support of his fellow MLAs and the Alliance party apparatus at Stormont.

His successor does not have a party to turn to for advice or support.

It is herself alone.

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