Northern Ireland news

Video: RHI - Where is Claire Sugden?

As the executive's only independent MLA, Claire Sugden holds a unique position of power amid the 'cash for ash' scandal. But the justice minister has remained conspicuously absent from the debate. Brendan Hughes goes in search of the missing minister

Brendan Hughes

WITH the DUP and Sinn Féin continuing to lock horns over the 'cash for ash' affair, it would be easy to forget there's a third leg to the stool of Stormont's executive.

Claire Sugden accepted the role of justice minister when the two main parties formed a government after elections last year.

As the only independent member of the executive, the East Derry MLA is potentially in a pivotal position over how the RHI scandal plays out.

It has even been suggested that legislation may allow Ms Sugden to unilaterally launch a public inquiry – bypassing the political wrangling over what type of investigation should be carried out.

However, the minister has remained absent from much of the public debate and has not commented on the debacle since before Christmas.

At that time she voted against an opposition motion of no confidence in First Minister Arlene Foster, calling it "premature" ahead of a "fair independent investigation".

The 30-year-old said of the executive that she would "kick the house of cards down myself if Northern Ireland did not have so much to lose".

Acknowledging her unique role, she added: "Let it not be forgotten by all sides of the house that I have the capability to do just that."

However, with the scandal rumbling on in the weeks since then and new developments day by day, her views are unclear.

Will she walk out of the executive? Should there be an election? What type of inquiry should there be? Does she agree with the first minister's allegations of misogyny?

Ms Sugden was elected under quota last year and if an election was called her seat could be at risk as the number of MLAs in each constituency drops from six to five.

With so many questions and so few answers, we went on a trek yesterday in an attempt to track down the justice minister.

Claire Sugden's constituency office in Coleraine. Picture by Mal McCann

After some unsuccessful phone calls to the Department of Justice and her constituency office, we visited her home village of Castlerock.

There was no answer to a rap on her front door. A neighbour questioned why we were there, saying that Ms Sugden was probably at Stormont.

In the seaside village itself, there were no signs of Ms Sugden. The few people ambling through the cold said they hadn't seen her.

"I don't know. I'm a 30-year-old woman but I really don't know who she is," one resident said.

Clasping a cup of tea behind a shop counter, Bozena Nowskowska expressed shock over the RHI controversy.

"It's just unreal. They could spend that money on something else – there's so many holes to fill," said the shop assistant, who lives in nearby Articlave and is originally from Poland.

She agreed that Ms Sugden should use her position to help tackle the controversy, adding: "If she has the power, why would she not? She should make them fix it."

Few in Castlerock were keen to have their names in print, but people generally expressed concern over the RHI scandal. Some said Ms Sugden should take action, but they weren't sure what that action should be.

Our final stop was the minister's constituency office in Coleraine. Unfortunately, a notice on the window said it would be closed until Monday.

A justice department spokeswoman said yesterday evening that they hoped there may be comment from the minister today.

Castlerock shop assistant Bozena Nowskowska. Picture by Mal McCann

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