This week 50:50 NI meets Kate Nicholl. Kate is an Alliance Councillor for Balmoral, South Belfast.
Have you always been interested in politics?
Yes, I think I have always been interested in politics, but maybe didn’t identify it as that. My grandparents were anti-apartheid activists: My grandmother was a member of the Black Sash which was a women’s organisation. In South Africa, at that time you couldn’t protest in groups of more than one, so they used to stand and protest on their own in black sashes. I remember hearing about a time when she was protesting, and a man came up and spat on her. A passing woman came up after him and wiped her face. They were very brave people. My grandfather was a journalist and there was always a suitcase packed in the house because they were not sure if he would have to leave in a hurry. They also used to help activists that were under threat. So I grew up knowing this about my grandparents and with a sense of pride about it.
I was always involved in school politics and then when I went to university I helped out on a Liberal Democrat campaign. I never actually joined the LibDems but a woman candidate was running that I admired so I volunteered for that campaign and that was my first taste of electoral politics.
So I have always had a bit of interest but when I returned to NI and went to work for Anna Lo that interest really developed.
Was there anything that inspired you to be a politician in particular or was it the family background in social justice?
I never wanted to be a politician. When I came back to Northern Ireland, as you will know, also being an anthropologist, I had lots of interest in many things. I knew I was interested in people. I applied to do a law conversion, which is what you do when you don’t know what to do! While I was waiting for the masters to start I wrote to Anna to see if I could volunteer in her office. I started doing one day a week and pretty soon I was there every day, they couldn’t get rid of me! Then a position came up in the office and I applied, I got it, and decided not to do the law conversion.
I was never going to run, it was Andrew Muir and Larry Thompson (party members) who encouraged me to get involved in local party association, and with Alliance, if you show willing to get involved then you end up getting involved in everything.
So, you worked for Anna before becoming a politician, did this work prepare you for political life?
I’d say it’s probably the other way around. I worked for the party for several years and then when Anna stood down I went to work at Queen’s University. I was working with elected students on their campaigns and now I work in a marketing role at Queens. So I actually feel like politics prepared me for my career. I think it’s important to have other interests because it’s not very healthy if your whole life is politics. If you tie your self-worth up too much in being elected, given it’s so precarious, this can be damaging if it doesn’t work out. The first time I ran in 2014, politics was my life and when I didn’t get elected I felt like I failed. Now I realise not only can you can create change in different ways, but the better politicians are often ones who have worked in other fields.
Is there a policy issue that you feel particularly passionate about?
When I first got involved reproductive rights was my number one issue, especially working for Anna because at that time out of 108 MLAs only 3 were openly pro-choice. When I ran in the 2014 council elections very few people were openly pro-choice and this was something I got attention for. You know people were writing about it, I got some threatening phone calls and some abuse on the doors. Thankfully that wouldn’t happen as much now.
My policy focus now is on poverty. Covid has really brought into focus the reality of poverty and what people are going through; and just how atrocious and punitive our welfare system is. It makes me so angry. What people are going through is just horrific. There is also so much stigma, you know some people are too ashamed to claim benefits that they are entitled to. People are getting into more and more debt and it’s so hard to get grants and support from the government. It’s such a massive issue, and we need more long term planning. I realised I just wasn’t informed enough on what to actually do about it, so I have been reading and talking to people about what meaningful work we can do on a council level. I am definitely committed to doing more on this.
So, what do you think is the hardest part of being a woman in politics?
Probably not being taken seriously. I definitely found that at the beginning. I think my manner is a little different, I think it’s more effective to collaborate with others. I prefer to get along with people and find common ground, though I think sometimes if you are viewed as being too nice people see that as a weakness.
General sexism is an issue too. The very first interview I did was with a radio station that only played 60’ and 70’ classics, both of the presenters were in their 60s and one of them said to me, you don’t look much like a politician. I said, would you say that to a man and he just laughed and replied, of course not!
The kind of comments you get on social media is also hard. I have disabled my DMs on Facebook because of the inappropriate messages. Some of them are disgusting and you know a male politician just wouldn’t get the same sort of thing.
The balance for women is hard as well, I have a fulltime job as well as being a councillor, and I am also studying at the moment. And with motherhood – it can be hard.
What do you think is the best part of being a woman in politics?
My favourite thing is the relationship with other women in Alliance, the support is incredible – especially from others who also have small children. I love that they just get it, and they make the job easier.
I love being a Councillor in general. I feel so privileged to have this job. To meet so many people, to see the issues in the city and to find ways to tackle them. It is a privilege to do that.
But yes my favourite part is definitely the other women and women from other parties as well. We all get on and often collaborate on issues and casework.
That’s great, there is so much research that shows women are better at collaborating so it’s nice to see that in action.
So in terms of barriers to getting into politics, if you could change something that would make it easier for women to get into politics, what would it be?
If I had a magic wand I would just have a 50:50 representation now! Too many women feel like they can’t do it or they don’t have the confidence to do it. If we had more women in these roles they’d realise they absolutely can.
I would like our political system to be more conducive to fixing things and being able to collaborate and work together. If we had a more collaborative environment I think more women would want to get involved. It’s often so adversarial which is off-putting.
We also need women from more backgrounds as well. Every single Councillor in Belfast City Council is white – we need more diversity.
It’s really important for 50:50 NI as well that we have women of colour and women from the LGBTQ community, disabled women just a diverse range of women in politics.
It’s incredibly important.
What advice would you give to a woman who wants to get into politics?
I would say talk to people who have done it. I am always very keen to talk to anyone who wants to get involved and reassure them they are perfectly capable.
I’d also say have a clear idea of what it is you want to achieve and to have a strong sense of what your values are and stick to them. Don’t compromise on your values. For many women, we want to be liked but you won’t always be popular if you make difficult decisions, but so long as you are making these decisions based on your values and what you think is right, then you are making the right decisions.
Finally, surround yourself with others who will inspire you and support you and remind you that you can totally do it.
If you are interested in getting into politics or are even just curious about how it all work get in touch with 50:50 NI at firstname.lastname@example.org