David McClarty’s Stormont assistant has confirmed that she has agreed to succeed him as MLA for East Londonderry.
Claire Sugden was nominated by the independent MLA, who died on Good Friday after a battle with cancer, to succeed him in the event of his death.
Ms Sugden, 27, who succeeded Mr McClarty on Coleraine Borough Council two years ago, told the News Letter that she would remain an independent until at least the next Assembly election, but said “never say never” when asked if she would ever join a political party.
She added cryptically: “Based on what I know now, I would imagine that I would continue to be an independent and I’ll say no more.”
In one of his final political acts, Mr McClarty had nominated Ms Sugden for next month’s council election but yesterday Ms Sugden said that she had taken the “difficult decision” to withdraw from that race to enter the Assembly.
Ms Sugden, who like Mr McClarty is a member of Killowen Parish Church, said that the only political issue on which she disagreed with Mr McClarty was gay marriage, which for moral reasons he opposed but which she supports. “It really was the only thing that we disagreed on,” she said.
Ms Sugden also told the extraordinary story of how she first met Mr McClarty – and now has ultimately become an MLA.
She said that the late MLA had helped a local hairdressing business which had offered to give him a free head massage in return.
Her sister, who was the therapist, told Mr McClarty of Ms Sugden’s interest in politics and he offered to help her in any way he could, something she said she “seized”, ending up working part-time in his office.
Four years ago, during a speech as part of the Washington Ireland Programme, Ms Sugden set out her political background: “I am a unionist, from the product of my upbringing and my own beliefs.
“My mother is a Protestant whose father was an Orangeman. My father was a British soldier who came to Northern Ireland in the Troubles. My allegiance to the British Crown is therefore entrenched in my family history.
“In addition, I am a nationalist, however a British nationalist. It is often forgotten that there is a large number of people in Northern Ireland who subscribe to the ideological notion of being British. They feel pride when the Union Flag is flown and a sense of patriotism when they sing ‘God Save the Queen’.”
However, the politics graduate made clear that she was “very much Irish too”.