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From backbench obscurity to top of dissident hit-list for new Justice Minister Claire Sugden

By Suzanne Breen

Published 26/05/2016

New Justice Minister Claire Sugden at Parliament Buildings, Stormont.
New Justice Minister Claire Sugden at Parliament Buildings, Stormont.

Claire Sugden's life changed dramatically as she became the new Justice Minister and went right to the top of the dissident republican hit-list.

Shortly after taking the job she was offered around-the-clock security and members of the PSNI's close protection unit were waiting at Stormont to speak to her yesterday.

Growing up as the daughter of a prison officer, the 29-year-old East Londonerry MLA is no stranger to living with paramilitary threats, and colleagues predicted she would cope well with the lifestyle transformation that holding the sensitive office involves.

"Claire is a very level-headed young woman. There is nothing flighty or impetuous about her. Just listen to what she said today in her TV interviews. She handled the media with great maturity and I've every faith that she will continue in that vein," a DUP source said.

Ms Sugden now has one of the toughest briefs in UK politics, grappling with the ever explosive situation in Maghaberry Prison being her top priority as well as setting objectives for the PSNI and determining its budget.

Abortion law reform will also be on her agenda.

More:  Sinn Fein's economic credentials face big test at Finance

Ms Sudgen is substantially less conservative than the DUP, and has previously voiced compassion for women with crisis pregnancies. "Claire's instincts are thoroughly liberal," said a unionist MLA. Ms Sudgen's down-to-earth manner has made her a popular figure in Parliament Buildings where some staff complained at criticism of her appointment by Mike Nesbitt and Jim Allister.

"The wee girl hadn't even got the job and they were having a go," one said.

It was clear in the chamber what was coming even before Martin McGuinness nominated Ms Sudgen. Gerry Carroll nodded to her and there were big smiles in her direction from the Greens' Steven Agnew and Clare Bailey.

Independent Claire Sugden is Justice Minister
Independent Claire Sugden is Justice Minister
DUP Paul Givan minister for Department of Communities
Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill minster for Health
DUP's Simon Hamilton is Minister for the Economy.
Sinn Fein's Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is Finance Minister.
Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard is Minister for the Department of Infrastructure.
DUP's Peter Weir is Minister for Education.
DUP's Michelle McIlveen is minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

Just four seats away Stephen Farry - who would have been the minister had Alliance reached a deal with the DUP and Sinn Fein - sat silently.

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As the two big parties revelled in new ministries, and the UUP and SDLP promised an exciting new Opposition, Alliance seemed sidelined and sounded flat.

Jim Allister may face competition on Opposition benches now, but he was still its leading light yesterday with his cutting pronouncement on the new Justice Minister.

"I like some of the things she has said politically.

"Famously and accurately, she described the leaders of this administration as jokers and how right that was. Yet today, for the sake of office, she is willing to become the patsy of the jokers, the place-woman of 'Marlene'," he thundered. On both sides of the chamber, Marlene did not look amused.

With economy, education, agriculture and communities, the DUP certainly got the best pick of the ministries. Unionist grassroots will be relieved that for the first time since devolution Education is now out of Sinn Fein hands and the unholy mess regarding academic selection can be addressed.

More: Northern Ireland Executive ministers named: Independent Sugden named Justice Minister - DUP and Sinn Fein choose ministries

By taking Finance, Sinn Fein aims to show Southern voters that it can be trusted with a budget and that accusations of economic illiteracy are unfair. Infrastructure was the party's second choice - the A5 road linking the north west to Dublin is of huge importance to it.

The Shinners need to deliver in Derry where they have been shedding votes to the Left and dissident republicans. It should be a relatively uncontroversial ministry for Chris Hazzard, although friends joked that he may never now finish his already delayed PhD.

The DUP certainly seems to be top dog at Stormont and there was no evidence that Sinn Fein had secured any concessions for agreeing to a unionist Justice Minister.

It was a good day for gender equality with four of 10 ministers now women, although there was slower progress at committee level with only three of the nine new chairpersons female.

While Conor Murphy was given the high-profile economy committee chair, Michelle Gildernew seemed a shoo-in for the same in agriculture, but that post went to new MLA Linda Dillon.

The omission of Ms Gildernew, one of Sinn Fein's most talented and likeable politicians, remains bewildering.

Down in the canteen, Arlene Foster was getting stuck into chips and macaroni cheese. There was no steak on the menu, the First Minister joked.

She'd been up from 6.30am. "It's been hectic but I'm happy," she said. "We have an exciting young team and I just can't wait to get down to business."

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