Nichola Mallon: A people's mayor
She's only the third female Lord Mayor in Belfast's history and is being fast-tracked to high office within the SDLP. An Assembly seat in 2016 is on the cards for Nichola Mallon ... just don't expect to see her posting any selfies. By Alex Kane
Nichola Mallon is held in high regard by some key figures within the leadership of the SDLP. According to a party veteran, "she is undoubtedly leadership material, the sort of person we need in a high-profile role if we are to have any hope of turning the party around".
An MLA observes: "She has been one of our backroom players for a few years, but we really need her in the limelight. She represents our next generation and we don't have enough of those. Keep an eye on her, she is going to be a politician to reckon with."
Having succeeded Mairtin O Muilleoir as Lord Mayor of Belfast last Monday, she now has that high profile. Within three days of joining Twitter she had attracted almost 3,000 'followers'. In an era when becoming Lord Mayor earned 'celebrity' status for both O Muilleoir and his predecessor, the DUP's Gavin Robinson, she is going to be very public property for the next year.
And, at a time when the relationship between Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness is so fractious, she has an opportunity to be a healing, coming-together figure at the heart of our capital city. Not bad for someone who was only co-opted to the council in 2010.
The SDLP will also be desperate for her to be successful in the role. Neither the Euro, nor council elections were good for the party and – along with Brenda Stevenson, the SDLP mayor of Derry – they need the sort of positive publicity that mayors can generate on an almost daily basis.
At next year's General Election, both Alasdair McDonnell (South Belfast) and Mark Durkan (Foyle) will be under pressure and, while good publicity for outgoing SDLP mayors is no guarantee of victory for them, it will certainly do them no harm.
Nichola Mallon was born at the Mater Hospital in Belfast in 1979. Her parents were a printer and a cook and she has a brother, almost two years younger. "We had a normal, well as normal as possible during the Troubles, working-class upbringing in Ardoyne, where both my parents and their families grew up. We remain a very close family and make a point of all sitting down to eat together on a regular basis."
She attended Mercy Primary School on the Crumlin Road, followed by St Dominic's on the Falls Road. While at school, she had a part-time job at a local Mace, "which involved working the till for hours on end, along with intermittent shelf-stacking". She also had one summer job, "the most exciting part of which was being on an assembly line sticking hooks on picture frames all day". Earning her own keep and a willingness to work where work is available seem to matter to her.
After A-Levels, she read Economics and Politics at Trinity College, Dublin and graduated with a BA (Hons), followed by an MA in Comparative Ethnic Conflict from Queen's University Belfast.
Her interest in politics began early: "It was difficult not to be involved when you were growing up in somewhere like Ardoyne at that time." There was also long-term family involvement in the trade union movement and she took part in May Day rallies.
When she was 18 – and spurred on by her politics teacher at St Dominic's – she wrote to both the SDLP and Sinn Fein, requesting a copy of their manifesto. They both replied, but "I was more impressed by the SDLP's and, because of inspirational figures like John Hume and Seamus Mallon, my choice was clear."
When she left QUB, she joined the civil service, working at AA and AO level before moving to the General Medical Council and then to a job with the SDLP.
In 2010, as part of the SDLP strategy to end double-jobbing, she was co-opted onto Belfast City Council to replace Alban Maginness in the Oldpark district electoral area. "Why did I agree? Because I'm intensely proud of, and loyal to, the area I grew up in and I wanted to try to give something back."
In the elections on May 22, she won the seat in her own right, polling just less than 1,000 first preferences. In July last year, she was appointed a special adviser to the SDLP's new Environment Minister Mark H Durkan, but has stood down from that position while she is Lord Mayor.
On the issue of how the parties co-operate on the council, she is very upbeat. "Relationships between parties in the council are generally positive and, outside of an election cycle, can be co-operative.
"At its height, this was demonstrated by the cross-party delivery of the recent £150m investment package for the city. One particular way in which relationships and outcomes could be, I believe, further improved, is by having more active and articulate female councillors.
"Women make up around half of Belfast's population; their experience and perspective is important in getting policy formation and the allocation of resources right across the city. However, this is only the third time in our city's history that there has been a female lord mayor and the first time there has ever been a female lord mayor and deputy lord mayor."
She recognises that Mairtin O Muilleoir will be a very hard act to follow and seems to have decided, from the outset, not to try. That's probably a wise decision.
One senses that the 'selfie culture' is not one that she would find easy to embrace, preferring, instead, to focus on people and policies. "I want to be a Lord Mayor for everyone and take the role out into people's lives – their homes, communities and businesses – and improve the relationship between the council and citizens, especially our forgotten citizens who feel invisible in our city.
"I will celebrate and showcase Belfast's heroes – the coaches, mentors, carers, volunteers – all those who give compassionately and selflessly, with little recognition, to their communities. For me these are Belfast's true First Citizens and they deserve recognition.
"I also want to play my part in helping to create a city of employment. There has been a lot of work done to promote Belfast as a great city to locate businesses, and I will continue to build on the goodwill and opportunities for investment. On top of that, SMEs are the economic backbone of our city, and they need support and promotion both in the city centre and right across all parts of Belfast. I want to ensure they thrive, too.
"I also want to build on the image of Belfast as a city of enjoyment. We have hosted a number of outstanding events recently – the MTV awards, the World Police and Fire Games, the Giro d'Italia. I want to help create our own events within the city to build on that legacy and bring people together to be active and simply have fun."
Maybe her likely approach to the new role – and politics generally – is best summed up in her view that "the politics of distraction is too often used to mask the failure of delivery". It suggests that publicity for the sake of publicity is not high on her personal agenda for the next year.
While O Muilleoir was certainly a very high-profile and popular Lord Mayor, he did attract criticism from some quarters for being "more interested in his own profile and next personal project than in the nailed-down specifics".
On the personal front, Nichola married husband Brendan last September – who, she says, "thinks I have mild OCD when it comes to cleaning. I'm also trying to learn the piano, when I can get away from work, which is certainly going to be more difficult for the next few months. There's also nothing more de-stressing in the world than playing with my three-and-a-half and one-and-a-half-year-old nephews. Apart from that, the best way to relax is good banter with friends and family and a sunny, lucky day at the races."
This is going to be a big year for Nichola Mallon. If she has decided to swap the backroom advisory role for frontline politics, then this is her opportunity to make her mark. The SDLP needs new, articulate figures, particularly in the Assembly.
Many in the party already regard her as one of their brightest and best and will be praying that this will be a very, very good year for her.