Alliance's Nuala McAllister: 'It's a very important step for Belfast to have a young mother as Lord Mayor.'
Alliance's Nuala McAllister will become Lord Mayor of Belfast on Thursday. In a revealing interview, the young mum tells how her and partner Sam Nelson's atheism influenced their decision not to marry, the people who inspire her in politics, and why she's hoping for a royal visit during her year in office
On Thursday Nuala McAllister will become the first young mother to be sworn in as Lord Mayor of Belfast. She plans to take her nine-month-old son Finn to as many official events as possible.
But there is one big problem. "The mayoral chain," she laughs.
"Whenever I wear a necklace Finn tries to tug it off my neck. I'll have to be very careful. I won't want to take any chances with the 19th century gold chain of office!"
At just 28, the Alliance representative has come a long way, fast. She was elected a councillor just three years ago. Her party obviously has high hopes for her.
From a working class nationalist home in north Belfast, her partner of five years is Sam Nelson, who grew up in Protestant Rathcoole.
"Alliance isn't just a party that we belong to. It's who we are and it's everything we want to be," she says.
Sam is Alliance's director of elections and its North Belfast candidate in next week's Westminster poll.
On a showery afternoon he's out on the campaign trail. Nuala is spending as much time as possible at home with baby Finn before her diary becomes chock-a-block with all the engagements that being Belfast's first citizen brings.
"It's not a 9 to 5 job. Most days there will be seven or more events to attend, and many are in the evenings. But it's a very important, symbolic step for Belfast to have a young mother as Lord Mayor," she says.
"I also want to be a role model for my son, for him to know that women are of equal value to men, both in the workplace and at home. I want to champion mothers during my term of office."
Nuala admits that becoming a mother was "an eye-opener" for her.
"It's the best thing in the world, but it's also the most exhausting and difficult thing too. I hadn't an easy birth and both Finn and I had health problems after he was born, which meant we both spent time in hospital.
"I found that hard going. My sister's wee girl has Williams syndrome (a development disorder) and I'm in awe of how women like her cope so brilliantly with such situations."
Nuala believes childcare should feature prominently on the political agenda. "The costs are huge and so many families are forced to rely on grandparents. It's a massive handicap for women in employment, yet we rarely talk about it," she says.
The incoming Lord Mayor hopes to make City Hall "a more open place for babies and toddlers" and to host events which parents can bring children to.
She was born into a family of eight on the Antrim Road. Her dad Mark was a chef and her mum Trea was a full-time mother and housewife.
"There were six girls and two boys - and the girls always ruled the roost," she says.
"We had a great childhood. I wasn't even aware of the conflict until I went to secondary school. Although we lived near the Westland Road interface and I remember my brothers sometimes following the crowd there and my mum going down, if there was trouble, and dragging them home by the ears."
As a child Nuala wanted to be a writer. "I penned poems and stories to read to my sisters. I loved JK Rowling and all the Harry Potter books - I still do," she says. "My favourite novel was Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. There were four sisters in it and I had five, so I identified with it hugely."
She became interested in politics while doing an A-level in the subject at Dominican College. She went on to study politics and law at the University of Ulster.
"Although I grew up in a working class, nationalist area, I never thought of joining Sinn Fein or the SDLP. I'm a progressive liberal and a feminist, and I don't agree with many of those two parties' policies," she explains.
She met Alliance members while taking part in the Washington Ireland programme. "I was very comfortable with them, I felt like I'd come home," she says.
Nuala joined Alliance after graduating in 2011 and secured a job with the party at Stormont.
There she met Sam, who also worked for Alliance.
"There was a good wee bit of flirting in the office between us," she reveals. "I liked everything about him. He was very laid-back and handsome and he had a great personality.
"But, most of all, he was kind and he listened to me. I was the carer for my granda Bernard and it was a challenging time in my life. Sam was a rock."
The couple, who are both atheists, deliberately chose not to wed.
"Marriage is great for some people, but we don't believe it's for us. We just couldn't cope with engagement rings and big white weddings and all that," she says.
"We have made a lifelong commitment to each other through Finn. We also chose not to have him baptised. I come from a devout Catholic home, and Sam is from a strongly Christian household, but both our families have been really supportive."
Finn took Sam's surname. "We made a deal that if we had a girl she would take my name and if we had a boy he would take Sam's," Nuala explains. The young family share their three-bedroom semi-detached home in Cavehill with cats Leon and Jake.
Nuala is a highly organised mother, with Finn's lunch and dinner menu for the week written on a blackboard in the kitchen. Sam - who once worked as a chef in Lyon - does most of the cooking, although Nuala bakes.
"I have 10 nieces and nephews and make all their birthday and First Communion cakes," she says. "And at home it's apple pies, tray bakes and scones."
Mary Berry's Baking Bible and a range of cookbooks mix with travel guides on the kitchen bookshelf. "We cook everything from scratch," Nuala says. "We are big foodies. We'd even organise a holiday around food."
Although Sam "enjoys a good cocktail", the Lord Mayor designate doesn't drink alcohol. "I don't like it, I don't like what it does to some people, I don't like spending money on it," she explains. The US is her favourite country. She has visited Washington six times. "It's such a clean city and the history, the culture, and all the free museums are amazing," she says.
Although she enjoys travelling, Nuala never once thought of leaving Northern Ireland.
"Whether I'm driving back from the Republic, or landing in a plane from London, I see the signs saying I'm back in Belfast and I'm so happy to be home," she admits.
Her political inspiration comes from two local people - Alan McBride, whose wife was killed in the IRA's Shankill bomb, and Sarah Ewart, who is campaigning for abortion law reform after being forced to travel to England for a termination despite being told her unborn baby had no chance of survival.
Nuala's main theme for her term in office is 'global Belfast'. "As the first mayor after the Brexit referendum, it's my civic duty to ensure that this city is still kept on an international stage, that we remain open for investment, and that immigrants living here feel welcome," she says.
Board games, from Snakes And Ladders to Monopoly, are piled high in her living room. "I come from a big board game family," she says. "My birthday is on New Year's Day and the family all arrive over. We spend the day playing charades and other games - it's very competitive."
While Sam is a huge Bob Dylan fan, Nuala has more contemporary tastes. "My favourite artist? Lady Gaga - from happy memories of listening to her as I got ready to head out for the night!" she laughs.
She enjoys science fiction movies and novels. "I like fantasy, something to take me out of the world I'm in and bring me somewhere that doesn't exist, just for a wee break," she says.
She adores Game Of Thrones. "I don't know how anyone in politics couldn't love it," she says. "All the plotting reminds me of City Hall. I even match the characters to councillors!"
Outside her party colleagues, the councillors with whom she has struck up a rapport with are the PUP's Julie-Anne Corr Johnston and Billy Hutchinson.
The new Deputy Lord Mayor will be Ulster Unionist Sonia Copeland. "I don't know Sonia that well, but I think we'll have a great year. The council also has a female chief executive, Suzanne Wylie. To have three women in such prominent positions sends out a very strong message," she says.
She is most looking forward to "selling my city and showing it off" over the next year. "If there's a royal visit, I'll be very excited," she adds. "We never learned the history of the royal family at my school, but I'm fascinated by it. I find it so intriguing, especially if you go back 200 or 300 years."
She plans to take "loads of selfies" as Lord Mayor and is unapologetic about that. "I'm part of the millennial generation who uses social media in a different way. I want to showcase everything positive about Belfast. I want to target people just like me and younger, whose heads are in their phones," she says.
Her parents, brothers and sisters, Sam and baby Finn will all be in the public gallery to see Nuala become Belfast's fourth female Lord Mayor on Thursday.
With both his parents in politics, I suggest that maybe Finn will decide to follow in their footsteps.
"Not a chance!" Nuala replies emphatically. "He definitely won't be choosing that career or running for election.
"It's a tough beat - and I couldn't stand anybody saying anything bad about my boy."