18 May 2022

INTERVIEW: Minister role ended in frustration: Claire Sugden

The East Derry MLA feels an opportunity was lost through Stormont's 2017 collapse.

INTERVIEW: Minister role ended in frustration: Claire Sugden

Claire Sugden says the Executive formed by the late Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster was an opportunity for progress.Foster

Liam Tunney speaks to East Derry MLA Claire Sugden about succeeding her mentor in the constituency, the recent violence and missed opportunities before the Assembly's collapse in January 2017.

Liam Tunney: Could you tell us why you got into politics?

Claire Sugden: I went to Queen's University and got my undergraduate in politics, and then when I completed that, I contacted my local MLA, who at that point was David McClarty.

He was very generous to me and gave me a couple of hours' work experience in the office and it kind of went from there.

Unfortunately David passed away in 2014 and he left my name with the electoral office to become the MLA for East Londonderry, so that's where it came from.

LT: How did that feel when someone like David McClarty, who you looked up to, left your name as his successor?

CS: I had mixed emotions around it. David was a wonderful man and the community really got behind him after that happened.

It was a huge honour when, after his passing, he had given me that role. Equally, it was daunting and I didn't have him there to guide me and mentor me through it.

I always wonder what he would have made of the last seven years with me as his successor. I hope I've made him proud.

LT: You mentioned about helping people. What has been your most proud achievement in that sense?

CS: Prior to me becoming Minister, despite having over 30,000 incidents of domestic abuse across Northern Ireland every year, no one had ever tackled it.

I made it my mission that we would get a conversation started around it, and that led to the piece of legislation that my successor has been able to make into law now.

If this all ended tomorrow, that's what I would take away from it.

LT: Did it frustrate you how your time as Justice Minister came to an end with the Assembly unravelling?

CS: It was disappointing, because I feel that government of Sinn Féin, DUP and myself was one that had the opportunity to transform Northern Ireland.

Certainly the conversations we were having around the Executive table before it all fell apart were the most positive, I understand, ever.

We had created a new approach in Northern Ireland where we were looking at outcomes. I really hope people start to realise what our job is, and vote for people on that basis.

LT: It had been rumoured at the time you had considered quitting politics. How close were you to doing that?

CS: 2017 was probably the worst because I really did think we'd moved on, and it made me reconsider if it was something I wanted to continue in.

I've had those feelings even since then, because we had three horrific years where politicians in particular parties were not being responsible to the people who voted for them.

The only reason I continue to do this job is to help people and try and progress things for them, and if I can't do that it would make me consider whether it was worth it.

It's my job to help people, and most people are really kind and generous. That's what I focus on and what keeps me going.

LT: Over the last while there has been violence and protests in the area. How do you try and calm the situation as a local MLA?

CS: I watched the behaviour unfold and it's sad to see it does seem to be young people. They are being exploited by potentially more sinister elements within the community.

Kids will look for opportunities, and if they aren't there, and someone else is providing them in the form of paramilitarism, that might be a better option for them.

It's no coincidence the unrest is happening in socially deprived areas and we need to get back to building them up again and not allowing paramilitaries to manipulate them.

Recent violence in Coleraine.

LT: How important are independent voices in Northern Ireland politics?

CS: Often people would criticise me and ask what one MLA in 90 do, but in my seven years as MLA I have demonstrated I have had an impact.

There is almost something more honest about independents, and if we need more of anything in politics at the minute, it's honesty.

I don't have to refer my opinion to someone, I can just have a very considered approach myself. If anyone compliments me, they say they appreciate my honesty and candour.

LT: You've mentioned female voices. Three of the current party leaders are women. How would you assess the current position?

CS: The Assembly needs to be representative of the people of Northern Ireland, so if 50% of the population are women, then we need to have 50% of MLAs as women as well.

The Assembly, in fairness, has come great strides in terms of that representation, because we have more female MLAs than we've ever had.

But we need more, and I would encourage any women, particularly young women, who are thinking about this to consider getting involved and having a voice.

It probably means them joining a party, but be the change you want to see.

LT: Is there anything in particular you're hoping to see done in the remainder of the Assembly term?

CS: I'm working on a piece of legislation around trauma. It's a fact of life, whether it's a car accident or have a traumatic birthing experience.

Mainly in Northern Ireland, our trauma comes from the conflict, and we have this generation in their 60s and 70s now who were traumatised by conflict and we've never dealt with that.

We're now seeing that manifesting in mental health issues, and it's no coincidence we have some of the most significant mental health issues across these islands.

I would like to develop a piece of policy or legislation that stops people being re-traumatised. I think it opens up that conversation about how we address the conflict.

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