Belfast Telegraph

Claire Sugden: When the Government was brought down, it made me question why we do this

The most personal and probing interviews: Independent MLA Claire Sugden on her political aims and her frustrations over the stalemate at Stormont

Q. You are one of our youngest MLAs. Is your youth of benefit to you in today's political arena because you don't come with baggage from the past?

A. I think younger people can have baggage, as much as older people. Certainly, bringing a more youthful perspective is as useful as someone older bringing a more experienced perspective.

I do think I see the value and opportunity in Northern Ireland and in the people within it and how we can move forward.

I don't necessarily have the same connections to the past as older members and I do think that is an opportunity to catch hold of.

A lot of the reforms we were doing in Government won't happen overnight, they will happen in five or 10 years. Therefore I think someone of my age and my generation should be part of these conversations, so I do think youth helps.

Q. Although you are very strong about being an independent and not belonging to any political party, who do you admire as a politician?

A. I do admire the strong women that are in the Assembly, whether that is Michelle O'Neill, the leader of Sinn Fein, Claire Hanna (SDLP), some of the great women the Ulster Unionist Party had but unfortunately lost in the most recent election and the likes of Pam Cameron (DUP).

I do admire that, because it isn't easy being a woman in politics, but I do think they hold themselves with grace and they move forward for the needs of their constituency and that's good leadership moving forward.

I work with everyone, these are my colleague ... that's my job.

Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?

A. I don't know. I don't ask my friends what their religion is. That is a really funny question to ask. I don't know, I honestly don't know. That is a bizarre question. I don't think of my friends as having a particular religion.

Q. What was life like in the Sugden house when you were growing up?

A. I grew up in a relatively big family. I have three sisters and a brother and we grew up in Coleraine.

We are very close, I see my family pretty much every day and I talk to them every day.

They have been very supportive of me in my career, both as an MLA and then as Justice Minister.

We have had a few difficulties over the past year, but we have all come together and we are very supportive of each other. I wouldn't be without them.

Q. Your father was a prison officer; were you aware of the risk and threats there would have been to his life and did that impact on your childhood?

A. We grew up with it and we grew up with what was happening in Northern Ireland, so we didn't really know any different.

My mother and father were very good at protecting us if there were any troubles or difficulties.

As children, it wouldn't have been so apparent to us, but you couldn't get away from it when you were younger in Northern Ireland.

We saw what was happening in the cities like Belfast and Derry, but my parents were very good at protecting us.

I don't recall ever being frightened, I remember being interested, which is maybe what led me on to politics in Northern Ireland, but I was very lucky in the childhood that I had.

I had a great family and I felt very safe and comfortable.

Q. You have recently become engaged to Andy Anderson, who has been a big part of your life for a long time. Tell us about Andy, where did you meet and was it love at first sight?

A. Andy worked in the restaurant where I was a waitress. He and I probably knew each other for two or three years before we began dating.

I wasn't really interested at first, but he courted me and I eventually agreed to go on a date with him and 11 years later we are engaged a year and hope to get married within the next two years.

Andy is wonderful, he is my rock and is the only person who knows me better than I know myself. He is my better half and I love him dearly.

Q. Have you begun planning your wedding yet?

A. No, we haven't. We got engaged in March last year and then I got elected the following May. Then shortly after that I became Justice Minister and it was a crazy year, so we haven't started planning yet.

We hope to set a date for 2018, but we will see.

Q. What are your interests outside of politics, how do you relax, or do you relax?

A. No, because you are always on the job, but the past couple of months have been the quietest for me since becoming an MLA.

I normally just have down-time with Andy, I do tend to walk a lot. I live in a beautiful part of Northern Ireland, up on the north coast, and we tend to walk the beaches a lot.

I like to try and keep a Saturday to myself when I can get the house tidy, get the washing on. I find housework a little bit therapeutic, I like the thought of getting my seven loads of washing done, getting them out to dry.

I have become my mother, I think.

Q. You were returned as an MLA with an increased vote after considering not standing at all. How much did that mean to you?

A. That was really important to me. Last year when I was elected I made a promise that I would be there for five years, so I thought the least I could do for my constituents was to stand and fight for them and they rewarded me for that with a much increased vote.

It was difficult to enjoy it because of the difficult political situation we were in then, but I was really humbled by it.

Q. Why were you considering not standing? At the time it was clear it wasn't an idle threat. You were very serious.

A. The reason I took the seat when my predecessor died was because I really do want to help people and the way we do that in politics is by having a Government that works towards better public services for the people of Northern Ireland.

When the Government was brought down at the beginning of the year, it made me question why were we actually doing this. What is the point of standing for election again, because we can't actually do the job that people expect of us when they put their number one or number two on the ballot paper.

It was a sense of frustration for me in that I couldn't see us moving forward, because Northern Ireland has come so far, but the whole thing could be brought down because of scandals within political parties.

It is a disgrace, because they are putting themselves before they are putting the people of Northern Ireland, and that's not why I got into it and it is why I am an independent.

Q. Stormont is at an impasse, how much is that frustrating you?

A. It is terrible, especially when I think of the number of wonderful things we could have done in terms of politics within the justice department.

I was hoping to move through the various stages of legislation in respect of domestic abuse offences, which undoubtedly will change people's lives. We saw a recent domestic homicide where a woman lost her life and the family around that will be greatly impacted. That starts with coercive control, which was the legislation we were trying to put through - that and a number of other things, it is frustrating.

While Stormont is in impasse, I am in my constituency office every day and we are definitely feeling the repercussions of not having the Government up and running. The same response we are getting from the Government departments, which seem to exist in a caretaking role, is that "we can't move forward on this because we don't know what our budget is going to be from month to month, so we can't give you a decision".

That is the most frustrating thing. While the politics are stagnant the public services are also stagnant and unfortunately hospital doors still have to open, schools still have to open. Life still goes on, but politicians don't seem to grasp that.

Q. Are you, or have you been involved in, the talks to get Stormont up and running again?

A. I think the two main parties that I work with in Government have been very good at keeping me up to date.

I have met with them on a number of occasions during the talks period, to see if there was a way we could find a solution moving forward.

I was in the Ministry just nine months, but I did get a sense of how we could take that department forward and deal with a lot of contentious issues that were being talked about which did fall within the remit of the Department of Justice, so I was quite keen to help the two main parties find a solution.

While I appreciate the five main parties are talking, ultimately it is up to the two main parties to decide if they want to form a Government or not.

Q. Do you think that is achievable, do you think a deal can be struck?

A. I don't think there are any big issues here.

I think ultimately what they need to do is work on their relationship, which will not happen until the Westminster election is over, because obviously they all have their game faces on and I think anything said in this period should be taken with a pinch of salt. I do think they need to step ahead so they can find a solution within the three-week period they have, but I don't know if a deal can be struck.

I think it has been one of those years where anything can happen.

Ultimately, yes, there will be specifics about any sort of an agreement, but it is about trying to rebuild the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein, who will be the two main parties in Government.

I think with what both have said, they have backed themselves into corners, so I think it will be difficult for them to move forward, but if they are genuine in what they are saying and this is about the people who follow them, then they have to find a way to move forward.

Each of them will not get 100% of what they want, but that is what politics is - it is about compromise and about finding a solution that works for as many people as is possible.

Q. Do you want to go back as Justice Minister?

A. I have been quite open about the fact I would like to finish the job I started, but I appreciate this is much bigger than I am.

Certainly I am keen to see the Executive up and running, but whether I am part of that or not I don't know.

I do think as an independent Justice Minister I really did bring something new to the table.

I didn't bring party politics, I didn't bring baggage, therefore I looked at each issue on merit.

I am quite willing to compromise on certain things and I think that is what politics should be about, it should be for the greater good and what we can do for the best.

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