Amid DUP-SF standoff, Sugden puts forward a compromise

Justice Minister Claire Sugden
Justice Minister Claire Sugden

Stormont’s independent Justice Minister has described the RHI scheme situation as “a mess” – but has proposed a solution to the standoff between the DUP and Sinn Fein over the current crisis.

In an interview with the News Letter, Claire Sugden ruled out joining the DUP and said that the crisis had “come out of the blue” for her after six months where the Executive appeared to be working together in a far more united fashion than ever before.

Speaking of the suddenness of the collapse in DUP-Sinn Fein relations, the East Londondery MLA said: “Perhaps that suggests there was a volatility all along that when a crisis of this magnitude presents itself there’s not a maturity there to be able to deal with it in the most appropriate way.”

When asked if it had crossed her mind that she was being damaged by association with this Executive, Ms Sugden said candidly: “It has...and there has been a lot of commentary around my independence on this. What I like to remind people is that I never sought out to be a minister...I’m on no one’s side; I’m on the side of the people that I want to represent.”

She questioned the point of having fresh elections and added: “Arlene has made it clear publicly – and to me personally – that she will not be stepping aside. My understanding is that both parties want to find a solution...I do get a sense that they are talking.”

With a standoff between the DUP and Sinn Fein over whether Arlene Foster stands aside for a four-week period, Ms Sugden suggested that “the compromise” between the DUP and Sinn Fein could be that if there was a preliminary four-week investigation which established culpability on Mrs Foster’s part she then stood aside.

“I’ve always said from the outset that I don’t think it’s fair that Arlene stands aside at this point. I don’t think it’s fair that Arlene stands aside unless there’s something substantiated against her.”

Ms Sugden also said that she had taken legal advice after the News Letter suggested that the Inquiries Act gave her the power to set up a full public inquiry. Ms Sugden said that although “reading the legislation in isolation it does suggest that any minister can raise an inquiry”, it had to be read alongside the Northern Ireland Act which means the Executive can pull in any decision which is controversial.

Ms Sugden’s predecessor, David Ford, suggested yesterday that she could still set up the inquiry, forcing the DUP or Sinn Fein to block it at the Executive which could be politically embarrassing.

But Ms Sugden said that she would be in breach of the ministerial code if she did so.

The Justice Minister was asked if she was happy that the Sinn Fein proposal would not specify that evidence should be heard in public. She said: “An inquiry or investigation of anything to do with RHI has to be robust, it has to be transparent, so perhaps they need to reconsider if any of the investigation is held in public. I’ve no issue with that.”

When asked if she was pressing for the inquiry to be in public or was just not objecting to that, she said: “From the outset, I’ve always said we have to have a robust, transparent investigation so if they’re not specifically asking for that then I suppose we need to ask why.”