This week 50:50 NI Meets Nichola Mallon. Nichola has had a very impressive political journey so far; Nichola is currently deputy leader of the SDLP and has been MLA for Belfast North since 2016. Nichola was also Lord Mayor of Belfast from 2014 to 2015.
Have you always been interested in politics?
I have always been interested in people and tend to get angry if I see unfairness or injustice anywhere and I have always been driven by that. It just so happens politics is the vehicle through which I can help people.
So was there something that inspired you to become a politician?
I never set out to be a politician. I did join the SDLP when I was 18. I studied A-Level politics and my teacher encouraged us to look at all the political parties and get involved in politics. I looked at what the SDLP stood for, its values, principles and policies and I felt that it would be a home for me.
Then I went off to university but always kept being drawn back to the SDLP.
In 2010 in north Belfast, there was an opportunity to replace Alban Maginness in the council and that’s how I became a councillor. Since then it’s just been amazing. I was mayor of Belfast. I never imagined that would happen, I became an MLA and now a minister and I never imagined any of this. I think sometimes politics picks you.
What did you do, professionally, before you became a councillor?
I worked in catering then I worked in the Civil service, after that I had a job at the general medical council and then went into politics.
Do you think this previous work prepared you for life as a politician?
I think it did in a way although I was still very young when I went into elected politics. I think the biggest thing I have been able to bring into politics is that I help to care for my mum who is disabled and I am now a mummy. That has had the greatest impact and brought the greatest wealth in terms of understanding the situations that people find themselves in and understanding the challenges that exist in our society today.
Is there a particular political issue that you feel passionate about? If so, what is it and why?
So, I have always been very disturbed by poverty. Looking back on my journey into politics it was poverty that was the driving force for me wanting to bring about change. Poverty is at the root of a lot of the issues that people have in their lives. It isn’t a coincidence that people who have the lowest incomes are those who live in the lowest quality housing, are those who have the highest health inequalities, are those who struggle ineducation and to access job opportunities, and are the people who struggle to see what hope there is.
If I had a magic wand I would use it to tackle poverty and give aspiration and hope to people. It transforms people’s lives, it would transform our economy and our environment. These things are all connected. Many of the problems people have in their life are there because first and foremost they are struggling to make ends meet.
In your experience what has been the most difficult about being a woman in politics?
I have had quite different experiences throughout my time in politics. When I first joined the council in 2011, I was very young, female, and also small in my makeup, so I’d be referred to as ‘that wee girl.’ Y’know not really being taken seriously. When I became Lord Mayor, that’s when I really started to become aware of my gender. When I would go to events with my husband, even though I was wearing the chain people would look past me and say to my husband ‘hello, Lord Mayor’. People always wanted to know if I had kids. There was also a lot of interest in what I wore. I don’t recall articles being written about what male Lord Mayors of Belfast before me wore..
Now as an MLA and a minister a lot of people try to tell me how to do my job and they are always men. I would never dream of telling people how to tell their job. They wouldn’t do that if it was a male minister?
Is being a mum and a politician hard?
Yes, really hard. That is the thing I have the biggest guilt about. I understand as a minister there is a huge workload with the job but it does mean you struggle to get quality time with your children. So that is one of the things I find most difficult and one of the things that needs to change in politics if we are to encourage more women into politics and people with caring responsibilities.
What do you think is the best thing about being a woman in politics?
I think, in my experience, women have a greater level of emotional intelligence and I see that in meetings where women can read a mood or body language. Also, women politicians seem to invest more time in relationships and understanding. Women can put themselves in the shoes of someone else and this is based on my experience of the women I have met in politics across all of the parties. That skill set and that ability to be able to focus on relationships and your experience as a woman is really important because we still have gender inequality across our society. Women’s experiences as carers are also really important whether it’s as a parent or for another family member. It’s important that this experience is present and considered in policy development and budget decisions.
If you could make it easier for women to get into politics what would you do?
I was talking this week about the lack of maternity rights for people in politics. I think for women who are coming into politics they should have that.
One of the biggest challenges is confidence. Women politicians, if they have to go on the radio, for example, will worry and question themselves much more than men. Women often think they are not good enough, not bright enough to be a politician. Even if you do have personal confidence it’s also about the confidence to step into the area and that area needs to change.
The best politicians in my book are those who are compassionate, honest and hardworking and those are qualities most women I know have in spades.
What advice would you give to a woman who wants to get into politics?
Do it! Y’know sometimes when I’m reflecting and asking myself why am I in this job or why am I doing this I always think about this quote from Obama: ‘Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek’
I just think, if you really care about people and you believe things should be better than this then politics is the profession because you can make change happen and unlike many other jobs,there are no set qualifications to act as a barrier.
To anyone who really cares about their community I would say get involved, join a political party or go the independent route but definitely stand up and do it because you can really affect change.
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