Claire Sugden says risks of taking the justice role are 'life-changing'

Claire Sugden
Image caption Claire Sugden has been appointed as the new justice minister in Northern Ireland

Until the Assembly broke for the election campaign, Claire Sugden was an occupant of what used to be called the "naughty corner".

She inherited the East Londonderry seat from David McClarty after his untimely death from cancer, following in his footsteps as a liberal unionist working hard on the bread and butter concerns of her constituents.

She was perhaps best known for a speech during last year's Stormont crisis, in which she pronounced that the House of Cards was falling down and hoped the "jokers at the top" would never get back up.

'Inevitable risks'

Having secured a seat via the assembly's co-option system, some whispered that Ms Sugden wouldn't survive her first election. But she proved the doubters wrong, getting 3.270 first preference votes and ensuring the Ulster Unionist party didn't make a comeback.

It might have been assumed that she would dedicate herself to consolidating her position as a grassroots politician, and when the Ulster Unionists announced they were going into opposition, she spoke approvingly of the move.

But then Alliance decided to dig their heels in around a demand for reforms to Stormont's controversial petition of concern vetoes, and the DUP and Sinn Féin started to look in a different direction for a justice minister.

In contrast to Alliance, Ms Sugden did not present Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness with a five-point wish list.

Sitting in her new ministerial office, she told me she didn't think that was appropriate.

Instead, she hopes to achieve change incrementally by building relationships with her new executive colleagues.

For example, she wants Stormont politicians to have an "open and fair discussion" about the fact that Northern Ireland women are still travelling to Great Britain to have abortions, and hopes to achieve "some constructive change".

Similarly on same sex marriage, I asked if she would now bear some responsibility if the DUP vetoes another Assembly motion, given that Alliance had been looking for such vetoes to be radically restricted.

Ms Sugden acknowledges she would be disappointed, but again believes that a "subtle approach" is more likely to pay dividends. She promises to have conversations with her executive colleagues "behind closed doors" in an effort to get them to change their minds on the issue.

She knows there may be occasions on which the two big parties are tempted to overrule her. But she says that if they do so, it will impact on them as she was their nominee for the job, and she vows not to be a "sitting duck" for either the DUP or Sinn Féin.

It's no secret the last few days have been very difficult ones for the 29-year-old MLA.

Not only has she faced a political dilemma, but her family has been dealing with the trauma of a motorcycle accident which left her brother-in-law very seriously injured.

As the daughter of a prison officer, she knows about the need to take security precautions, but she describes the inevitable risks of taking the justice post as "life changing".

Ms Sugden describes the last week as perhaps the toughest of her life. But flicking through her "first day brief", she hopes to move forward on a more positive note.

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