Belfast Telegraph

Ignore the old begrudgers up on Hill, youth no valid reason to doubt Northern Ireland's new Justice Minister

Given the pickle that 'experienced' politicians have landed us in, Claire Sugden's appointment is to be welcomed. Let's face it: she could hardly do any worse, says Gail Walker

Claire Sugden's appointment as Minister for Justice comes as a nice change from "politics as usual". While little has changed in terms of votes cast, even a casual glance shows - to those who want to see it - that we have witnessed a sea change.

More women in the Assembly, fewer old faces returned, a genuine overhaul of ministers with a dramatically younger profile.

Sugden's elevation is a potent symbol of the shift - and for that reason alone should be welcomed.

So ignore the murmurings, Claire, about "experience" and how you don't have enough of it.

The truth is that "experience" is often just a guise old codgers give to old mistakes, an irrational plea to tradition and an arbitrary demand that respect be paid to mere longevity as opposed to progress.

From the lowliest office to the corridors of power there's always those who just know "how things are done" here. Usually, this "experience" heralds little but masterful inactivity.

Look at our own vastly experienced politicos. So brilliant they helped trap their people in a low-level civil war for three decades. For all the posturing, their mantra - either orange or green - was: "I am their leader. I must follow them." We followed their experience, their worldly wisdom and it nearly destroyed us.

When we needed leaders with a bit of vision we got experienced politics steeped in tradition. Even our peace - a peace more of sheer exhaustion than genuine change - has inched painfully slowly over 20 years.

If that's what experience has given us, then perhaps it is time to give youth its head.

We could hardly do worse.

Politicians often tell us about how we need to get youth involved, to engage them with politics.

So, what happens when a young woman is promoted to an important job (a job, mark you, some of her critics were unwilling to take on)? Surliness and churlishness that would be embarrassing if it wasn't so predictable.

Hence, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood's sour statement about the Justice ministry being handed to "someone who does not deserve it". And an embarrassing attempt to wrap the green flag around himself, muttering about how the DUP is vetoing nationalists from the Justice ministry, while Sugden is proposed by Sinn Fein. Is this the "new alternative" you promised, Colum?

And, more to the point, how do you "deserve" advancement in politics? Serving your time, playing the game? Why should our politics be a game of "it's Muggins' turn now", devoid of a search for talent or vision?

It does seem strange that youth is seen as freakish in our politics. We don't balk at 29-year-old teachers attempting to inspire our young to find Much Ado About Nothing funny. Or 29-year-old doctors battling to save a patient's life. Or a 29-year-old lawyer involved in litigation worth millions of pounds.

At least Sugden looks recognisably of today: a young, educated woman who has worked her way up from political assistant to the late David McClarty. Following his death in 2014 she was co-opted as his replacement.

The fact that she was returned as an Independent (never an easy thing to be) speaks volumes for her work in the East Londonderry constituency - as well as a testament to the high regard that McClarty was held in up there in the north west.

It may be early days, but she has handled the media scrum and the ageist abuse with a professionalism that would shame many. By all accounts, she is level-headed and generally liked by all-comers up on the Hill.

So, quite why her advancement represents some kind of "corruption" of politics here is baffling.

What would suit her critics? Yet another grey man with lashings of experience of the party system?

In fact, the response of the new so-called "Opposition" parties epitomised the predicament they found themselves in at the polls.

Somehow, the "alternative" politicians here were the ones who sounded grumpy, disappointed, bitter - like the codger in the corner of the office whining about all these young ones getting promotions they don't deserve.

It may only be a small thing, but Ms Sugden's appearance in the chamber was greeted with aplomb and wisdom by the Green Party and People Before Profit MLAs. No frosty glances there.

The UUP and SDLP ought to reflect on who looked more in tune with the new emerging Northern Ireland - Gerry Carroll, Clare Bailey, Steven Agnew and Claire Sugden? Or Jim Allister, Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood?

Alexander the Great had conquered worlds by his late twenties. I doubt very much that making a decent fist of running our justice system will be too big of an ask for an intelligent, down-to-earth young woman.

Her journey over the next few years will be one we would all do well to study carefully.

We might all learn something about the courage to take our chances, and what we are capable of when we do.

Belfast Telegraph


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