Former Lord Mayor Nichola Mallon: I'm coming back down to earth... with a bump
Former Lord Mayor Nichola Mallon tells how she's adjusting to normal life again after she handed over her chains of office, and how she's now looking forward to becoming a mum for the first time.
One thing that is instantly recognisable about Nichola Mallon is her smile - it's the megawatt grin that has popped up repeatedly on the news and social media at the many civic and community events she has attended during her Mayoral term over the past 10 months.
And while there is no doubting Nichola's enthusiasm for her role as First Citizen, having taken up the prestigious title with gusto, she admits she's missing it already. Don't be fooled by this thirtysomething woman's bubbly persona, politics is in her blood.
Now that the SDLP councillor for Oldpark has handed over her chain to Arder Carson, the first Lord Mayor of Belfast's new super council, what is next for Nichola Mallon?
Family affairs are obviously on her mind now. When we meet in Belfast City Hall's coffee shop her baby bump is barely noticeable under her classic navy shift dress and she jokes that she'll have to be "prised out" of the heels that she wears to match. She may no longer be Lord Mayor but that doesn't mean the hard work is over - as we meet she has a phone and tablet device at her side to keep track of emails and constituency business.
It's a matter of weeks since her 10-month role as First Citizen ended, and Nichola is easing herself back into normal life.
"The morning after my time as mayor ended all I did was clean! It had been annoying me until then," says Nichola.
"To be honest I've been keeping myself busy as I don't think really think it's sunk in yet anyway."
Only the third woman elected Lord Mayor of Belfast in the city's long history, Nichola can't help but conceal her enthusiasm for the role she has just left behind.
"It's the most amazing job I have ever done and I never expected to enjoy it so much. I met a whole gambit of people including the Queen and visitors from other countries," she says.
"Every single day I bounced out of bed and I got out of bed like I was on a high. I didn't think I would have been mayor for a day never mind 10 months so to have the experience at all was fantastic."
Nichola's interest in politics was sparked at an early age when her father, a printer, took her along to trade union meetings.
"I didn't understand what was going on but I loved the atmosphere and I could see that the people there were really passionate about what they were talking about," she explains.
"The whole family was involved as my uncle was in the union too and I can remember going on May Day marches. I grew up in Ardoyne and you can't help but be aware of politics there."
As a teenager, Nichola's passion for social issues grew.
"I would go on anti-war demonstrations and I didn't wear designer clothing as a matter of choice after I read a book on the ethics of labels called No Logo.
"My brother still calls me the caped crusader," she laughs.
Although her original ambition was to become a vet, she realised during her time at St Dominic's grammar school that science wasn't her forte. She attributes her first real interest in party politics to her sixth form politics teacher, Mr Scott.
"He woke me up to the structure of government," she recalls.
"He challenged us to get the manifestos of each of the political parties we were interested in and join one if it spoke to us. I joined the SDLP."
Nichola will be the first to tell you that she never set out to have a career in politics, although her CV might read otherwise.
After her A-Levels and a degree in Economics and Politics at Trinity College, Dublin, she earned her Masters degree in Comparative Ethnic Conflict back in Belfast at Queen's University.
Her career began in the civil service before moving to the General Medical Council and then a full-time job with the SDLP. She was co-opted to Belfast City Council in 2010.
Although politics has long since been her passion, the role of Lord Mayor brought a new set of challenges for Nichola.
"Before this job I was never particularly aware of my gender. I've been an elected representative for the last five years as a member of the council and although it is a male-dominated environment I just got on with things within that. This was the first job that I had taken that it was evident that there was an additional dimension to my identity in terms of my gender."
Ms Mallon freely admits however that she didn't find being a woman a hindrance during her term in office.
"That I was female and a younger female at that certainly got me more coverage and I think it made me more memorable," she says.
"People have asked me if the issues that I chose such as unsung heroes and forgotten citizens would have been the same if I was a male but I haven't been able to answer that in my own head. I do think that it's the person who chooses their agenda, not their gender.
"I suppose people responded to me differently as a woman though. One of my last engagements as mayor was at a residential home that was all women. They were all asking about the baby and they wouldn't have done that with a man."
One of the more immediate challenges Nichola faced when she first took on her chain was her wardrobe.
"A guy can just wear a suit and tie every day and no-one will say anything but if I wore the same thing all the time then people would notice. Even though I've been in Belfast City Council for five years I was always very much in the backroom. All of a sudden I was being thrust forward and constantly photographed."
"People in Belfast are very direct - if you don't look well they will tell you," says Nichola, with a grin.
As there is no clothing budget for the Lord Mayor, Nichola was faced with sourcing, what at least appeared to be, a different outfit for each day of her public life.
"I got very creative," the 35-year-old laughs.
"For starters I mixed and matched staple pieces - a different jacket or scarf to change the look of a dress. I got very good at shopping and was always looking at sales sites online.
"When I was first elected I had great help from my cousins. They brought loads of clothes together for me in one room and I was allowed to borrow anything I liked for the full 10 months of my term. I couldn't have done it without them!"
Nichola is frank about the highs and lows during her time as mayor. "It is hard work, you put in long hours seven days a week but that's at the Lord Mayor's discretion, you are the one who decides to attend events or to have initiatives. You set your priorities at what you feel passionately about."
She goes on to describe the role of Belfast's First Citizen as something of a blank page.
"You don't have executive power or legislative authority, there is no huge budget either. Your official duties are to chair council meetings and to be the first person to greet the heads of state that come into the city. After that it's up to the individual to make of the role what they will."
One of the initiatives Nichola is proudest of during her term is the Unsung Heroes Awards. She presented awards to local individuals who were part of non-profit organisations or charities.
"While I was mayor I came into contact with people from both sides of the community," she says. "I especially came into contact with forgotten citizens and was keen to make sure their hard work had some kind of recognition."
Nichola's term ended after 10 months instead of the usual 12 with the implementation of the new supercouncils on April 1. She will return to the job she gave up last year, acting as special advisor to environment minister Mark H Durkan at Stormont.
Throughout her life another Ardoyne native proved to be an inspiration for Nichola's life in politics.
"Mary McAleese went to the same schools as me as well as coming from the same part of Belfast," said Nichola.
"I was part of a delegation that went down to Dublin for her inauguration and I've always followed her career and what she says about issues - you can tell she really thinks things out."
Nichola was lucky enough to meet the former President of Ireland a second time.
"I took a delegation from Ardoyne down to Aras an Uachtarain just before her term ended," says Nichola.
"She was so warm and welcoming and made everyone feel like she gave them a million pounds. That lady has a very special touch."
Nichola and her husband Brendan Scott are expecting their first child in July, having got married two years ago. She laughs as she describes how the two got together. "You have to go through a lot of frogs!" she quips.
"I knew Brendan for years before we got together as he was also a member of the SDLP. There had never been anything between us, then at a party conference we started chatting. We went out for a meal not long after and it all went on from there."
PR professional Brendan, who is still a member of the SDLP, has no plans to follow Nichola into government, civic or otherwise. Instead, the two try to keep their home life as private as possible.
"We held off as long as we could before announcing I was pregnant," says Nichola. "I was at four and a half months and starting to show when it came out. It was bizarre - I wasn't expecting to read it in the newspaper!"
At around six and a half months through her pregnancy, it's fair to say Nichola is blooming although her neat bump is barely visible under her shift dress when we meet.
"At the moment I feel fine," she says. "It was at the very beginning of the pregnancy that I felt really tired and that was exactly the time when you have to hide it.
"Again I think if I had been doing any other job I would have struggled but I was still bouncing out of bed in the morning, ready to go because I loved what I was doing.
"There has been so much support though, strangers have sent cards and stopped me on the street to say congratulations. Even at the St Patrick's Day Parade in Belfast people were shouting out in the street."
As Nichola and her husband await their new arrival in July, she says she is looking any further into the future than her new role as a mum.
"I'm constantly looking for a new challenge and during my term as mayor I wondered what that would be," explains the former Lord Mayor.
"Lo and behold this is it, the biggest job of all. It is daunting but I can't wait."
Family is a high priority for Nichola as she came close to losing her mum Ann a few years ago.
"My parents were on holiday in Rome when my mum had a series of brain haemorrhages," she says.
"She spent three months on life support in Rome and was given the rites. We thought we were going to lose her.
"Even when she was able to come home she had to learn how to do everything all over again but mum has such a sunny disposition she dealt with it."
Ann has been left with aphasia - speech difficulties - and physical disabilities but Nichola still attributes her as being the glue that holds the Mallon family together.
"Mum is a huge part of my life and since she was ill I've realised that family and health are the most important things in life."
As for the future, Nichola hasn't quite decided what her next task in the political arena will be although she certainly hasn't ruled out a larger role for herself.
"I enjoy helping people and I love constituency work but I have reservations about how Stormont functions. It's like everything else though - if you're not willing to go in and improve things then you shouldn't shout about what's wrong in the first place.
"At the moment I'm going to focus on supporting Mark H. Durkan then looking after this little baby come July. After that I'll keep my eyes open to see what pathways are open to me.
"I never set out to have a career in politics but it's been very good to me.
"I work for a government minister and have spent the best part of a year as the Lord Mayor of Belfast. Not many people my age can say they have done things like that."
These are a few of my favourite things...
Favourite Movie: I love Tim Burton films like Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas and so on. I wasn't too keen on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I think that Gene Wilder was a better Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
Favourite Book: My favourite book was always Hard Times. I read it at school and studied it and I loved it then. I did go back and re-read it a few years later but it disappointed me so I think it was a favourite book at that moment in time. I don't often go back and re-read books now.
Favourite Music: I love music. One of my favourite musical experiences in Belfast was going to see The Seahorses in the Mandela Hall. I love the Mandela Hall as a venue anyway as it's so small and intimate. I would love to see David Bowie someday too, that's the dream concert that I would love to get to.
The perfect day in Belfast: I would love to get picnic tables back in the grounds of City Hall and have a couple of up and coming bands jamming away. I would have to follow that with fish and chips for lunch.