Belfast Telegraph

Take responsibility for the power that you hold...28-year-old MLA Claire Sugden's message to the Stormont parties

On the eve of fresh talks, a new political generation has its say

By Noel McAdam

The Assembly's newest and one of its youngest members has used her maiden speech to warn MLAs not to slip back and to remember how far Northern Ireland has come.

As new multi-party talks get under way today, Claire Sugden also told MLAs to "take responsibility" and respect the position which people have put them in.

The 28-year-old, who replaced the late David McClarty, said: "I live for Northern Ireland. I live for politics in Northern Ireland. I would love to bring my generation with me."

The East Londonderry MLA also added: "We have the potential to do so much more, and I look forward to a time when we are able to do that."

Miss Sugden took over after former Ulster Unionist-turned-Independent MLA Mr McClarty passed away in April, but she admitted yesterday it had taken some time to deliver her first Assembly speech because she had been on a "steep learning curve".

She was first co-opted on to Coleraine Borough Council last year, becoming the youngest ever female councillor in the district.

She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in politics, a Masters degree in Irish politics and was recently also studying part-time for a Masters degree in political lobbying.

Speaking in advance of the latest multi-party talks, Ms Sugden told MLAs: "I will take this opportunity, because I can, to remind all political parties moving into the new talks to be mindful of the position that the people of Northern Ireland put you in.

"Be mindful of how far we have come, because that is important, and take responsibility for the power that you hold."

But she also warned against the kind of back-door deals which lead to the debacle over electing a Speaker this week – and chided Education Minister John O'Dowd for failing to meet her.

Looking directly at Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin, who had been expected to take over from the DUP's William Hay until the DUP reneged on its agreement with SF, she said she had "no issue" with him being in the chair.

"I abstained from voting for our new Speaker. I was frustrated, and I was not going to vote for a deal that I did not make. I have no issue with you sitting in the chair.

"You seem to be quite well versed in the role, but I do have an issue when two parties make deals behind closed doors, forgetting the mandate of other elected representatives in the House.

"Had that deal been made with the consensus of everyone, you might be sitting here as Speaker – well, that is unlikely."

The independent member made her comments as the Assembly voted to fast-track the legislation setting up the new education authority, which replaces the planned Education and Skills Authority. She slammed the Bill as "short, simple and uninspiring – a Ford, if you like".

The problem of the lack of representation from groups other than the controlled sector had been made particularly apparent when she requested a meeting with Mr O'Dowd.

"He refused, saying that it was not necessary, and directed me to my education and library board. I went to someone at my education and library board, and he directed me back to you. These people do not have anyone to lobby for them, and, in my position as an elected representative, I have tried to do that."

Ms Sugden paid tribute to her predecessor, Mr McClarty, for whom she worked for several years.

"The passing of my predecessor, my boss and, most of all, my dear friend David McClarty, was heartbreaking. He was my mentor, he was my guide, and he is the politician whom I would be honoured to become," she said.

A Stormont newcomer speaks out: Claire Sugden on...

TALKS: “I remind all political parties moving into the new talks to be mindful of the position that the people of Northern Ireland put you in. Be mindful of how far we have come...”

THE FUTURE: “I want my generation to feel the same way about this country as I do. It is OK to drive a Ford, but I would rather drive a Porsche, and I think that that is what we should aim for.”

EDUCATION: The new Education Bill “demonstrates the inability of our Executive to legislate effectively without throwing their toys out of the pram or making deals behind closed doors”.

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