Nichola Mallon: 'I want gates down to make Belfast City Hall more welcoming'
Adrian Rutherford talks to Belfast Lord Mayor Nichola Mallon on how she is settling in as first citizen, her big plans for the future of the city and how she got diet advice from the Queen.
Q. One month into your term as Lord Mayor, how have you found it so far?
A. It's been hectic. You are kept busy but it's a very fulfilling job. You get to meet people from across the city who you otherwise wouldn't get the chance to meet, and you get to see things happening in the city that you wouldn't normally see, so it really is a very, very enjoyable and rewarding job.
I didn't realise how demanding the job was until I took up the post, but you get to see the best of Belfast.
Q. What is a typical day like?
A. I do on average six or seven engagements a day, it's maybe less intensive at the weekends, but there are still a number each day.
It starts quite early and runs quite late, and it's basically a seven-day-a-week job, but when you're in a privileged position you don't mind.
It's an honour to be the first citizen of your city.
Q. You are following one of the most high-profile, well-known Lord Mayors of recent times in Mairtin O Muilleoir – has that been difficult?
A. I think the past number of Lord Mayors have transformed the role and lifted it to a different level than perhaps was the case before.
For me, each Lord Mayor brings their own style and their own interests and priorities.
The beauty of the role is that it's very much shaped by the individual.
I also don't see it as a race where you try and outrun your predecessor. It's more of a relay, so you are trying to build upon what each of your predecessors brought to the role that you think worked well, and you add your own things to that.
Q. Have you taken any selfies yet?
A. No, not yet. I wasn't really into social media at all until I took up the post.
My first tweet was on the evening I became Lord Mayor, so I am having to learn it all.
I think it's important to be able to communicate to people what you are doing, so social media is becoming more and more vital.
There are so many things happening which compete for newspaper space, but this is a way we can directly communicate to people.
I have a couple of thousand followers already, which I never expected, and that is a sign that people are interested in what the Lord Mayor is doing and has to say.
Q. What is your vision for your term in office?
A. My overarching theme is celebrating the best of Belfast, and there are a number of key priorities in that.
I want Belfast to be a city for everyone.
That means reaching out to what I term our forgotten citizens – the people on the margins of society – whether they are homeless or battling addiction and so on. Also, those from different cultures and backgrounds.
I also want to recognise what I call the city's unsung heroes, those who go about quietly but are doing extraordinary things. I want to use my term to show how much they are valued and give them some recognition, and as part of that I hope to have civic awards that I will hand out throughout the year in recognition of those people.
Q. What else do you have in mind?
A. I also want to focus on a city of employment. I would like apprenticeships for young people with some of the public construction works which are about to commence which are not restricted to just a couple of weeks.
It means enabling young people to acquire a lengthy experience, so they have something very credible on their CVs as they go into the world of work.
We hope to put together a funding application for the Department for Employment and Learning based on that.
Q. You also have some plans for making the council more open and accessible?
A. Yes, I want a city that makes the most of its environment, and a big focus is City Hall itself.
Ideally I would like to see the gates taken down so that it's visually more open for citizens and visitors alike.
I want to better utilise the space within the grounds of City Hall.
I think the building should be open seven days a week.
The front gates are closed on Saturday and Sunday, but we have a great asset for the city and a tourist attraction, and we should be making more use of it.
I have a number of initiatives planned. We are going to have movie nights on the big screen, there will also be a beach day where there is sand outside, meaning if Belfast can't go to the beach then the beach will come to Belfast.
I'm also hoping for a boxing tournament.
The aim is to have about two events in the grounds of City Hall every month, ranging from tai chi to sporting events to fitness classes – just to open up the space.
The City Hall rightly is a place of protest for citizens but it should also be a place of fun and positivity, and I think we could be doing more in the grounds of City Hall to promote our city.
Q. Do you mean taking the gates away permanently?
A. Yes, literally taking them down so you can walk in from the pavement.
I think that would send a strong message about how we are transformed as a city. That is something that has to work through the structures of the council, it isn't just in my gift.
However, I hope to work with council colleagues towards that.
Q. You also believe there is a place for fun?
A. I want a city of enjoyment, which dovetails with the environment point, and it is just about having fun.
It is about involving and engaging citizens young and old, bringing people together and just having a laugh.
Q. Was politics something you always wanted to get involved in?
A. My family was involved in the trade union movement, so from when I was small I was brought to May Day parades. Politics, from that angle, would have been talked about in our home.
Growing up in Ardoyne as well during that time it was very difficult not to be involved in politics, it was all around you.
I didn't make a conscious decision to go into electoral politics.
I joined the SDLP when I was 18, I was studying A-Level politics and our politics teacher was urging us to join political parties.
After finishing university I had a job working for Thomas Burns, then an MLA for South Antrim.
I stepped outside politics to work for the General Medical Council for a bit, then I went to work in Alasdair McDonnell's constituency office.
I had a spell at Stormont working on policy and Press, before ecoming special adviser for the Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan.
Q. You mentioned growing up in Ardoyne – what do you remember of that?
A. I have very happy memories. I remember playing in the streets, all our neighbours were very close. I had some good friends and we are still in touch.
We would have seen Army patrols and there were atrocities which clearly stick out in my mind, even though I was very young.
However, my memories are overwhelmingly happy and are like any other person's recollection of childhood – playing in the street and having fun.
Q. You are only the third female Lord Mayor. Does it disappoint you that the figure is so low?
A. I wasn't as conscious of gender issues in the city before taking up this post.
I hadn't been aware that I was only the third, and that this is the first time in this city's history that the top two posts – the Lord Mayor and deputy – have been held by women.
We also have a female high sheriff and a female chief executive and assistant chief executive, so I think that sends out a very strong message across the city and beyond about the role of women.
Having said that, I think it's regrettable that it has taken so long and that only now are we talking about firsts, considering we make up about half of the population.
Q. There have been Government reshuffles at Westminster, where the Prime Minister has been accused of "window-dressing" his cabinet with women, and in Dublin, where Enda Kenny hasn't appointed a single woman to a junior ministerial post. Do you think we are too preoccupied by gender?
A. I think it should always be a meritocracy, where you rise on your merits.
However, I think we need to ask ourselves why women are so unrepresented in key positions across society, from business and politics right through a range of senior level posts.
It always amazes me that, when you go out into the community, a lot of the activists in community life are women, but there seems to be an obstacle in terms of taking the next stop forward into electoral politics, even though many are doing what a councillor would be doing anyway.
Q. Do you think it's harder to be a women in politics?
A. I don't think so but I do think the nature of politics presents challenges for some women, particularly those who have families.
Politics can be very aggressive and the hours are long and unsociable.
Q. Do you think women are taken seriously by enough people?
A. I can only speak from my experience, and I would say yes. I would challenge anyone who didn't.
Q. One of your biggest engagements so far was welcoming the Queen to Belfast– what did you make of that?
A. I think it showed how far we have come as a city.
At St George's Market the Queen was walking around, meeting members of the public. At the City Hall there were members of the public in the grounds.
It was a very successful time for the city, it sent positive images of Belfast around the globe and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Q. There was an incident when you said you were misquoted referring to the Queen as "a foreign representative" – how disappointing was that?
AI contacted the newspaper in question and they clarified the matter.
I don't want it to take away from what was a great few days for Belfast.
Q. What did you make of the Queen?
A. I thought she was a lovely lady – very easy to talk to and sharp-witted.
We talked about families, she asked me what it was like being a female Lord Mayor.
We also talked about horse-racing and she spoke about the World Cup, and the fact she had watched a hurling game recently.
I asked her for advice about eating out so often on engagements, and how to avoid piling on weight and she said there was an art to pushing your food around the plate, which she showed me.
One of the ladies at our table asked about her great grandson, Prince George, and she was talking about his first birthday coming up. She was very open and relaxed.
Q. Some previous office holders have caused controversy in terms of what they have put up or taken down in the Lord Mayor's parlour. Have you done anything different?
A. The only thing I have done is take down some paintings which the previous Lord Mayor had in the bottom half of the room and put up faces of people from Belfast who have done great things and are an inspiration for the city.
It is going back to what I said about having a sense of pride.
I think, as a city, we talk ourselves down too much and undersell ourselves.
Considering that we are relatively small, we have produced some outstanding people and we should be proud of them, celebrating and showcasing what they have done.
Q. When you see the transformation of Belfast over the past 15 or so years, it is an exciting time to be a part of the city – do you think we appreciate it enough?
A. Sometimes when you live and work and sleep in the city, you forget or don't see how much it has changed.
But if you look at the skyline of Belfast, it has completely and utterly transformed, and sometimes people who live here need to be reminded of that.
I've got to see it in this job, I've met people from all over the world and every time they talk about the warm Belfast welcome and how friendly a place it is.
Q. There were some negative remarks from a Game Of Thrones executive who said Belfast was not the most cosmopolitan of cities. What did you think of that?
A. I think Game Of Thrones is a tremendous asset – look at the exhibition and the number of people who have been through that, plus the awards it has received. I think it has done great things for Belfast.
He clarified his remarks and apologised, and rightly so.
Q. How do you like to spend what little spare time your role as Lord Mayor allows?
A. My favourite thing is playing with my two nephews, who are three-and-a-half and one-and-a-half. It's my favourite way of relaxing. All the tension goes when I play with those two.
I also love music. When I can I try to play some music, but I have to admit I'm not the best.
My music tastes vary. I would be able to go without a television but I would never be able to go without music. In the Lord Mayor's car I listen to the news in the morning, then on the way home I get them to stick on the radio, and they have to listen to me singing in the back.
I also love horse-racing and a good day out at the races.
Q. What's been the best thing about your time as Lord Mayor so far?
A. I've been humbled by the amount of goodwill.
I didn't perhaps appreciate how important the role is to people, and I've been humbled by the number of strangers who have come up to me and wished me well.
Q. How would you like people to view your year in office?
A. I think it's very important to judge people by outcomes.
Hopefully, when people look back on my term in office, they will say that I achieved what I set out to achieve, that it was a very positive year, and we had a bit of fun along the way.