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Claire Sugden 'would consider' Minister of Justice portfolio at Stormont

Gerry Adams does not rule out fresh election over contentious decision

By Suzanne Breen and Noel McAdam

Young independent unionist MLA Claire Sugden has said she will consider taking the job of justice minister if it is offered to her while Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has said a full Executive will be elected on Wednesday.

The Alliance party turned down the ministry yesterday as the SDLP and UUP announced they would form an official opposition.

A justice minister must be appointed by next Wednesday or fresh assembly elections will have to be held.

Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness held meetings with the 29-year-old independent unionist MLA and the Green Party leader Steven Agnew on Thursday.

She told the BBC: "They simply asked me how I felt about things. If an offer is made I will consider it. I have no wish list. I will do what I think is the right thing for my constituents."

It is understood Ms Sugden would have similar views to the DUP on law and order issues but nationalist sources said that Sinn Fein was also amenable to considering her for the job.

"Sinn Fein MLAs have a constructive working relationship with Claire," one source said.

Addressing the media at Friday lunchtime, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams would not rule out an election if the matter is not resolved.

He also said it was a "pity" the UUP and SDLP did not tell the voters of the intention to enter Opposition.

"Our focus is to get a full Executive including a justice minister elected on Wednesday - that's our focus," he said.

"That's what Martin [McGuinness] is mandated by us to do. He is resolute about that, patient about that and confident he will succeed."

Asked repeatedly if his party would chose a DUP justice minister over another Assembly election, he said Sinn Fein would fight any election called on a "positive" campaign.

Speaking on BBC Northern Ireland's Sunday Politics programme five days ago, Ms Sugden spoke strongly in support of an official Opposition at Stormont.

One unionist source said: "This could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her. She would go from being a backbencher right into front line politics. The lure of the ministerial car and all the trappings of office should not be underestimated."

However, other unionist sources played down speculation.

"Claire Sugden has admirable youthful energy and she has grown into her role as an MLA," a source said. "She is well-liked and has won increasing respect.

"However, she is just too inexperienced for a key job like Justice. She isn't ready for it, and there would be a whiff of desperation about it if she was to be appointed."

The East Londonderry MLA was co-opted to the Assembly to replace David McClarty following his death in April 2014.

She had been his campaign manager, and then parliamentary assistant.

Ms Sugden surprised many who had dismissed her as a one-Assembly wonder with her election this month, where she secured almost 10% of the poll.

The situation regarding the Justice Ministry is unlikely to be resolved this weekend. Sources said that decisions concerning the post would not be made until Monday at the earliest.

Ms Sugden was thrust into the spotlight after Alliance turned down a return to the role.

Last night the party's ruling council strongly backed the leadership's decision not to accept the ministry.

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein have previously vetoed the other taking the job, instead relying on the cross-community Alliance Party to fill the post.

The news came at the end of a day of high political drama, with the SDLP announcing it would join the Ulster Unionists in Opposition.

Despite the fragmentation of the former five-party Executive, First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness insisted the appointment of ministers and first meeting of the new Executive would go ahead next week.

The two leaders appear to have told their former power-sharing partners that they could not agree to immediate major changes to the Programme for Government.

Their meeting with an SDLP team lasted for less than half an hour.

Their meeting with Alliance was even shorter, at only 10 minutes.

Alliance had put forward demands in five areas, including a strategy to tackle paramilitaries and significant investment in universities.

But the main sticking point was over restricting the use of the Assembly petition of concern mechanism, which both main parties have used to block legislation in the past.

Speaking after last night's meeting of Alliance's council, Naomi Long said: "If the DUP and Sinn Fein wish to come to us, they know where we are. If they want to reopen negotiations on the basis of the paper we put to them, of course we will be happy to speak to them.

"But, after tonight, it is very clear the party council is in agreement with the position that we took, and I see no one intent on moving from that position."

Belfast Telegraph


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