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She's impressive, but DUP and SF might eat her alive: insiders give their views on MLA tipped to become next Justice Minister

By Suzanne Breen

Published 21/05/2016

Claire Sugden
Claire Sugden
Claire Sugden with her fiance Andy Anderson
Claire Sugden leaving Stormont Castle after negotiations on Thursday

Claire Sugden has come from nowhere to find herself on the cusp of landing one of the most senior jobs in Northern Ireland politics.

As revealed in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph, the 29-year-old is regarded as a serious contender for the post of Justice Minister.

Her appointment would underline the changing face of politics at Stormont.

The Justice portfolio is as tough as they come, with prisons, paramilitaries and policing issues all falling within its remit.

It is not the type of position normally associated with a young, female politician.

The previous minister, Alliance leader David Ford, had a wealth of experience under his belt and is more than twice Ms Sugden's age. Yet, she seems to be up for it if an offer is made.

If appointed, it would change Claire's life dramatically - with the new job meaning round-the-clock security.

Known as a very private person, Ms Sugden would nonetheless have to accept members of the PSNI's close protection unit being with her 24/7.

It would be a world away from her present free-and-easy life, which involves walks on Castlerock beach with her fiance, 33-year-old Andy Anderson, whom she is planning to marry next year.

Just 11 days ago Ms Sugden told this newspaper that one of her top personal priorities was to start exercising to look her best for her wedding day.

But if she becomes Justice Minister there will be far more substantial matters on her plate.

The situation in Maghaberry Prison, deemed just seven months ago as the most dangerous jail ever inspected by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, remains potentially explosive.

Moving from the backbenches into front line politics would also mean a huge increase in her workload. Her spare time is currently spent watching TV and reading. As a minister, the future would hold boxes of papers at home every night and an overflowing in-tray.

One nationalist MLA who knows Claire well said it would be a massive culture shock. "I wouldn't see her in the chamber as regularly as some other MLAs," he added.

"Her focus is very much local, and she would tend to be in Stormont more when there is something relevant to her constituents on the agenda. She is very hard-working on the ground where she has a wonderful woman, Roisin Brown, to support her.

"I didn't see evidence last term of Claire aspiring to be a parliamentarian, but that's a smart choice she's made. As they say down South, a wise TD rarely goes near the Dail, they spend all their time in their constituency."

The nationalist MLA also told how Ms Sugden's local focus had paid off. "She inherited the East Derry seat from David McClarty, who was exceptionally popular, and Claire has benefited from that goodwill on the ground," he explained. "She's an affable, approachable person the electorate has clearly taken to. The UUP got a shock when Claire held the seat, so she shouldn't be underestimated.

"Justice is a hard job. I think Claire would do it to the best of her ability. It would mean a complete transformation in her lifestyle and refocusing the energies she channels locally into Stormont. I would worry that she lacks experience in the chamber."

While Ms Sugden shares the DUP's views on many law and order issues, Sinn Fein is understood to be amenable to her.

A unionist source said this was unsurprising. "She was the most biddable member of the 'naughty corner'," they added.

"She wouldn't be regarded as a troublemaker in the mode of Jim Allister or David McNarry. She never picked fights with Sinn Fein, so she would be a comfortable choice for them."

Ms Sugden is understood to be substantially more liberal than the DUP on abortion reform and equal marriage.

Another unionist source said: "Claire Sugden is a very pleasant young woman, but it's a big step up from what she's doing to being a minister. If an offer is made, I'm sure she'd be flattered.

"But I fear that she would be bossed about by the DUP and Sinn Fein. They can be very intimidating and, under current arrangements, they could sack her at any time.

"Some observers believe that a figure from outside Stormont may eventually end up with the portfolio."

But the nationalist MLA added that if Ms Sugden was offered the position, it would be hard for her to refuse.

"The danger is that she would be eaten alive by the DUP and Sinn Fein," he said. "She doesn't have any party behind her. She has no support infrastructure, nobody to fight her corner or bounce ideas off when the Big Two round on her at the Executive table or cut her budget."

Belfast Telegraph

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