Independent MLA: ‘I have no no wish list before becoming justice minister’

Claire Sugden
Claire Sugden

An independent unionist MLA has said she has no demands or pre-conditions which she wants to see met before potentially becoming the new justice minister.

Claire Sugden, 29 and only elected to the Assembly for the first time two weeks ago, was speaking as Sinn Fein’s leadership yesterday refused to be drawn on who they may support for the crucial role, which requires cross-community backing.

She has looked like an increasingly likely candidate since the Alliance Party – which had previously held the post – indicated on Thursday that it was unwilling to do the job again unless more concessions were granted to it.

Meanwhile, a senior DUP figure has said that there is “no danger of the DUP losing our identity”, as it looks ever-more probable that it will have Sinn Fein alone as its fellow governing party after both the UUP and SDLP refused to take up ministerial seats alongside them.

There are just a few days remaining before all the ministers in Northern Ireland’s government must be appointed – otherwise the Province could face the prospect of a fresh round of elections.

The DUP and Sinn Fein had comfortably come out top in the May 6 election, winning 38 and 28 seats out of a possible 108, respectively.

Leaving aside the offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, this meant the DUP were entitled to have three ministers in the new government, and Sinn Fein two.

The UUP and SDLP were also entitled to one each – which they have both since refused, opting instead to set up an Opposition to the governing Executive.

Since the role of justice minister requires support drawn from both unionist and nationalist MLAs, the DUP and Sinn Fein are having to cast around for a suitable candidate to do the job after the Alliance Party indicated it is not likely to take up the post again.

The Green Party had also been approached as possible contenders.

But on Thursday they said that this would be “problematic” because they want to see a number of concessions from the DUP and Sinn Fein first.

Claire Sugden, MLA for East Londonderry had also been in talks with the First and Deputy First Minister on Thursday.

Although she was not offered the justice role, it remains a possibility that she may be.

She told the News Letter her understanding is that if the Alliance still indicate that they do not wish to take the role by early next week, “then, yes, they will look towards me”.

She added: “But, you know, I haven’t said I would take it. I would consider the offer.

“Who knows? They say a week’s a long time in politics – and a weekend could be even longer!”

Unlike the Green Party or the Alliance, she has no special demands if offered the role.

“I don’t think I’m in a position to offer a wish list – I’m not going to say ‘I will take this on if you give me this, this and this’,” she said.

“I think that’s where Alliance have actually maybe compromised themselves a little bit. Because they’re not in any position either – they don’t have the seats to be considered for normal government.”

Although the Alliance Party’s governing council rejected the idea of taking up the justice seat on Thursday, Trevor Lunn, Alliance MLA, suggested there was a slender possibility this could still change.

“The door is slightly ajar,” he said. “But it’s up to them to come back to us.”

It is understood, however, that there is little prospect of any offer being made in order to tempt it back into government.

The DUP had already totally ruled out the idea of supporting a Sinn Fein candidate for the post of justice minister, which essentially involves controlling the police and the court system.

Speaking outside the Sinn Fein headquarters in west Belfast yesterday, Gerry Adams said: “Our focus at the moment is to get a full executive including the justice minister elected on Wednesday.

“That’s our focus. That’s what Martin (McGuinness) is mandated by us to do.

“He is resolute about that, he is patient about that and he is confident he will succeed.”

However, Mr Adams has declined to be drawn on the prospect of supporting a DUP candidate for the role.

“We have to have a full Executive elected on Wednesday,” he said.

“If we don’t we are into another election. So, we are looking at a series of options to make sure that the full Executive is elected. But I am not going to discuss that on the airwaves at this time.”

But whoever is chosen, the DUP and Sinn Fein will be governing largely with each other alone during this Assembly, having lost the support of the other traditionally more moderate parties.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, who – like Arlene Foster – defected from the UUP to the DUP over a decade ago, was asked whether this increasing reliance on republicans was a sign that the party was losing its identity.

He replied: “I think anyone who argues that just doesn’t understand the DUP ... We’re proudly unionist, and we’re proudly a party that takes a stand on pro-life issues. We’re proudly a party that has a strong approach to the economy.

“I think the people who are losing their identity, if I may say so, are the people who claim the mantra of 1916, but have bought in to a partitionist Assembly that is part of the UK. Unionists are being strengthened day by day in their identity. There’s no danger of the DUP losing our identity – far from it.”

. In a story headlined ‘Stormont moves to aid accessibility’ in Thursday’s edition, the News Letter attributed a bid to make Parliament Buildings easier to use for disabled people to the Northern Ireland Executive. This should have read ‘Northern Ireland Assembly’ (the Executive being the ruling group of ministers at Stormont).