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MLA Claire Sugden: I'm not sure I would accept the post of Justice Minister if I was offered it... but I'm as entitled to the job as anyone

Published 23/05/2016

MLA Claire Sugden
MLA Claire Sugden
Claire Sugden with her fiance Andy Anderson

Independent MLA Claire Sugden tells Donna Deeney why she has no interest in teaming up with any of the big unionist parties - and of her determination to see politics break free of old issues like flags and parades.

Q. Have you been offered the post of Justice Minister?

A. No, but I did meet with the First and Deputy First Minister. I think it was an opportunity for them to explore options, but as yet they have not offered me the post, and I am not sure if I would accept it if they did.

I am aware of all the speculation, but I honestly haven't given it too much serious consideration. There are so many factors to be considered. First and foremost is how it would affect my constituents. I did not stand for election thinking that I would become a minister. I am a public servant, and I see my job as a politician. That and my constituents will influence any decision I make if I am offered the post.

Q. What are the circumstances in which you would accept the Justice position?

A I don't have a wish list and I don't think I am in a position to have a wish list, but neither do the Alliance party for that matter, so I am watching them with interest. I think they should be the party that takes the post, but the reality is I'm as entitled to it as anyone, as is Steven Agnew, Gerry Carroll, Eamonn McCann or Jim Allister, because it is a position supported on a cross-community basis.

Q. If you don't take that post, will you enter the official Opposition?

A. I think what the Ulster Unionists and SDLP have done is a huge step forward and a move towards normalised politics in this country, which I am a big advocate of. However, I don't think it is legally possible for me to be part of an official Opposition. I think you need to have at least nine members for that to be possible, so that would also apply to the Alliance Party, the Greens, People Before Profit and Jim Allister.

I will be in the unofficial opposition if I am not the Justice Minister. We will see what happens because anything is possible.

Q. How does it feel knowing that 5,000 people in East Londonderry gave you a vote?

A. We had thought as long as we get in - even if I was one of the last ones standing - that would be fab, but we actually did better than my predecessor in a smaller turnout. We reached the quota, which I was over the moon about. That means I won a mandate and am more than entitled to my seat.

Q. You were co-opted to the Assembly by the late David McClarty two years ago. How important have the years since then been?

A. I don't think I could have done it in less than two years. Certainly, David's passing was almost a thing where we didn't even get a chance to grieve in a sense. We moved into our house a week after David, so the two years have really flown in.

I was conscious that people didn't know me. I had been very much behind the scenes. People knew David and the office was David's and that was fine, so I was keen that people got to know me and the only way to do that was to reach out and identify who my constituents were - whether that was through community groups or other means - and then go out and start meeting them. That led me to getting elected.

It was always important to me that I didn't contain myself in Coleraine. I was keen, as an independent unionist, to get out to places such as Park and Feeny, and that is what I have done. Two years hasn't been enough. There are still a lot more groups that I need to connect with, but that is what the next five years are for.

Q. Why did you decide to run as an independent, rather than with one of the established parties?

A. David was elected as an independent in 2011, so when he gave me his seat it was always in my mind that I should maintain that independence because that is what people voted for.

I also thought a lot over the two years after David died and, I must admit, there was no political party that I would have thought of joining.

I think any of the successes I've had over the two years is because I had the freedom of independence. Generally, I can't subscribe to the way some of the parties have carried themselves.

People may have assumed I was associated with the Ulster Unionist Party, but I don't see them as having made any impact in the past couple of years, so I decided I was going to fight the election as an independent. I got it, so it was the right decision. Politics is about people and I didn't see the political parties directing their politics in that way.

Q. Some people say that at just 29 you are young for an MLA. Do you find your age to be a help or a hindrance?

A. Neither really. I look at some of the older politicians and I see their energy. I think people take me at face value, but some might question what do I know of the world.

I have had more criticism for not having a previous career and coming into politics with no experience in another field and always being involved in politics. I suppose that my response to that is, if I was a businesswoman coming into politics, that would mean I was bringing baggage. But I am coming in as a blank slate, and that enables me to be the best representative I can be because I am not prejudiced in any way.

Q. Do you think you can achieve much as an independent when you may not hold a ministerial position?

A. Every MLA, regardless of their party affiliations sits on a committee. I would be quite keen to sit on the new Committee of Communities because it will be focused on a lot of the work I do in my own constituency.

Beyond that, as an independent I have created change within the Assembly in general. The hard work I have done over the past two years has allowed me to get elected. I am the first independent woman to get elected in Northern Ireland.

There is more of an opportunity to make an impact because of the nature of politics in Northern Ireland. Political parties seem to be always up against one another, and because I am not a threat to the political parties, because I don't aspire to displace them, they don't see me as a threat. Therefore, I do think there is an open door there, so when I request meetings with ministers, I tend to get them.

I think that this has enabled me to build stronger relationships. Politicians tend to take me as they find me, and generally that has been quite positive. I think because I'm limited in some way in being able to scrutinise governments - I can never really table a debate and speaking rights mean that sometimes they get timed out before they get to me - it means that I have been very focused on asking all my parliamentary questions. I was the only MLA in Northern Ireland in the last mandate who asked my full 25 questions a week, so I can say I am doing my job 100%. What other MLA can say that?

Within the next five years I will be looking at Private Members' legislation as well so that I can get a piece of law onto the statute book, which I would consider to be one of my biggest achievements.

Q. What are the issues you feel most passionate about?

A. I see the opportunity in Northern Ireland - I think anyone who lives here sees the opportunity - but then you go through Stormont and it is almost as if they are in their own wee bubble and things are being hindered. My thoughts on why Northern Ireland is so far behind are that we just don't have enough capable politicians or at least we didn't in the last mandate.

I am very much about raising that bar of politics. Politics is about people and delivering good public service. I think that every MLA - whether they sit in government or not - should strive to ensure better governance.

I think Northern Ireland's problem was that until recently, because of the legacy of the Troubles, senior civil servants have ruled this country, and to an extent they still do.

It should be that constituents tell their politicians what is good for them, then politicians tell the civil servants and they put it into place.

Q. A number of other independent candidates - people not allied to the region's main political parties - have also been elected to the Assembly this year, why do you think people are turning away from the traditional parties and looking at new organisations and new political candidates?

A. The past year, if anything, has made people turn away from politics. There was so much apathy on the doors when we went knocking. People were saying "what do you do? You do nothing", which was disappointing to hear but not surprising. People look at Stormont and see that some MLAs have abused their position, and that really turns them off. A generation has passed since the Good Friday Agreement, but how much has really changed in Northern Ireland?

Thankfully, we don't have violence anymore, but we need to start moving forward and doing the job that the Assembly is supposed to do.

It disheartens me that just half the people in this constituency eligible to vote actually voted, but what really disheartens me is the quality of politics. People feel they have no one to vote for.

The turnout decreased in this constituency, which basically means people didn't think it is worth going out and voting for someone, and that's sad. Young people not voting disheartens me even more.

For me, politics is not about the nonsense that has characterised this place for so long. It is about people and about better public services.

Q. This year, the number of female MLAs increased by 50%. But out of a total of 108 elected representatives in the Assembly, only 30 are women. What prevents more women from entering the political arena?

A. Generally, women don't see politics as a job for them - they perhaps see it as a men's world, a boys' club. In my experience over the past two years, have I encountered sexism? If I am honest, I haven't. Women need to see that they can be a politician as much as a man, and we need to start sending that message out. We need to create a new narrative about what politics is about - it isn't about flags and parades and peace walls and all those things. On a day-to-day level, politics is about helping people and trying to improve services for them.

Q. Do you think that gender makes a difference?

A. No. Never in my life have I seen my gender as being a hindrance to me. If others look at me and see me as weaker because I'm female, then that's their problem, not mine. The reality of this job is that it is all encompassing. It is not a 9am to 5pm job - it is 7am to 11pm and it is seven days a week and it does impact on your family life.

Q We have talked about Claire Sugden the MLA, what about Claire Sugden the family woman?

AI come from a relatively big family. My father is from Leeds, and he met my mum in Castlerock, where I have ended up living. He loved Northern Ireland, he loved my mum and they ended up getting married. There are five of us, and I am the youngest of four girls and a boy. We are a close-knit family. I moved in to this house with my fiance, Andy, and I saw the benefits of my family then. I'm very, very close to my parents, and they have been great. They are very proud of me and everything that I've achieved.

Q. When you get the chance, how do you like to relax?

A. I don't always get to relax, but I like to try and keep a Saturday to myself so I can get the house tidy and get the washing on, so that on a Sunday night we are good to go on the week ahead. I then might catch up on a bit of television. 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!

I live in a really beautiful part of the world, so it is nice to go a walk along the beach, which is five minutes from us. I also like to sit out with a cup of coffee or take a drive along the north coast.

Q. What are your interests outside of politics?

A. I enjoy art. It was either art or politics for me, and I suppose I didn't really see a career in art - I wasn't that good! I dabble a bit in fine art, painting, drawing and crafting. I suppose my other big project at the minute is my house. We live in a very old house and it is a work-in-progress. It is about getting time to get it to be a place we can call home, and it is starting to feel that way.

Q. Where do you like to go for your holidays?

A. I love America - it really is my home from home. I spent two summers in Washington DC as part of a cross-community programme that took 30 students from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over to the city to work as interns. I made a lot of good friends there. It is an incredible city - it's not too fast, not like New York, but it's not slow either, like California.

I love the States. I do think that sometimes Northern Ireland does live in its own wee bubble - not the people, but Stormont. That became very apparent to me recently during the debate on equal marriage in the Assembly. I went to London a few days after that debate and just thought, 'You really don't know the world you live in sometimes because the world is so diverse'.

I have consistently voted for equal marriage. I am of the opinion that we all have one life to live, and as long as we are not hurting anyone else, we shouldn't limit other people.

Q. What is your most precious possession?

A. Rather than a thing, there is a person, and genuinely my most precious possession is my fiance, Andy Anderson. Andy and I have been dating for more than 10 years, and we just got engaged on our 10th anniversary. He has been my rock - he gets me completely. I don't think there is anyone who knows me better than Andy, and he means the world to me.

Q. If you could meet anyone dead or alive, who would it be and why, and what would you say to them?

A. I can't think of any one person, but I really do like strong women, so I would be looking forward to Hillary Clinton getting elected. I think that is a huge step for women in general. If I met her, I think we would talk about her life and the struggles she has had in the world she moves in.

I have such respect for Arlene Foster as well - she is another strong woman. I think she is a good politician. It is not because she is female - she is just a good politician who happens to be female, which goes to prove everything we have talked about. Being female doesn't hold you back.

Maya Angelou (the American civil rights activist) was also a fantastic role model for women.

I don't get too phased by celebrity. I'm really impressed by strong people and what they are doing and how they can impact, so for me, meeting my constituents is always a great thrill. When they come in and say nice things about how I have helped them, that is the best joy I get in life.

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