Claire Sugden: Straight-talking wild card in deal with Executive ‘jokers’

Claire Sugden has won a reputation for not being afraid to speak her mind
Claire Sugden has won a reputation for not being afraid to speak her mind

A straight-talking prison officer’s daughter who once described Northern Ireland’s leaders as jokers in a house of cards has now found herself holding a key post in Stormont’s ministerial deck.

Claire Sugden entered the Assembly only two years ago – co-opted into the seat left by affable independent unionist David McClarty following his death from cancer.

Ms Sugden, who was Mr McClarty’s political adviser, said she hoped he would be proud of her appointment as Justice Minister.

“I had a conversation with his wife Norma and she said David would be very proud,” she revealed as she was unveiled as the new incumbent at the Justice Department.

The 29-year-old Co Londonderry-born politician, who won a seat in the Assembly in her own right in this month’s election, has earned herself a reputation for not being afraid to speak her mind.

While she was once warned by the Speaker about her use of language when she branded the Paris attackers a “special kind of b******”, her scathing criticism of the last DUP/Sinn Fein administration will no doubt be the Assembly speech she is reminded of most as she takes a seat in an executive otherwise filled by those two same parties.

“This house of cards is falling, and good will come of that only if the jokers at the top come crashing down too and do not get up again,” she stated at the height of a political crisis last autumn.

The old guard needed to go, she insisted.

“I believe that Northern Ireland will only truly move on when those people involved in the Troubles are no longer in politics,” she said.

Recently engaged to long-time boyfriend Andy Anderson, Ms Sugden is the youngest of five children. Her father was from Leeds and met her mother in Castlerock, Co Londonderry, where they raised their family.

He worked as a prison officer, giving his daughter a first-hand insight into the security threat that prevailed through the Troubles up until the present day.

Speaking in a Stormont debate about the dissident republican attack that ultimately claimed the life of prison officer Adrian Ismay earlier this year, she said:

“I was the daughter of a prison officer, and we grew up, over 10 to 20 years, feeling threats in our lives.

“I remember once getting a telephone call to say that we would have to go to a safe house. We did not go to the safe house, and, thankfully, it was not necessary at the time, but it was a real threat.

“The worrying side of that was that it was normality for my family and the families of prison officers across Northern Ireland.

“That was 10 or 15 years ago, and it is quite sad to think that, in 2016, we are still faced with those types of threat. Whoever may try to justify this, there is no justification for it.”

As Justice Minister, Ms Sugden will now be charged with the job of tackling the dissident threat and trying to make sure no other security force members fall victim to the extremists.

She will also be central to the ongoing debate about Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws.

While the young MLA voted against a specific legislative move to relax the restriction in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities in the last mandate, she has stated a desire to change the law once a careful examination of the contentious subject in undertaken.

As her appointment was announced, she said a “subtle” approach was required on abortion.

On another controversial social issue facing the new executive, Ms Sugden is firm advocate of legalising same-sex marriage.