Belfast mayor Nuala McAllister: 'People would have underestimated me in the past'
She may be the first young mother to wear the chain of office of Belfast lord's mayor but Nuala McAllister has an ambitious vision to create a global Belfast that is welcoming and inclusive for all. She tells Joanne Sweeney why positivity is her mantra for her year in office
BELFAST'S Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister may be small in stature but she has a big dream for her home town – that's to see it as a truly global city which is open, welcoming and inclusive to all.
At five feet and – most importantly – half an inch tall, Belfast's first citizen is promising that most rare of things from a politician in the #FakeNews era: honesty.
She's certainly disarming with some of her answers, as only a 28-year-old who's in a dream job and totally in love with her partner – Alliance Party's director of elections Sam Nelson – and baby son Finn, can be.
Just over three years ago she was elected as an Alliance councillor for the Castle electoral ward of north Belfast; today she is the hard-working leader of Northern Ireland's largest council in the run-up to Brexit, with the Stormont parties at loggerheads.
Sitting in the mayor's parlour, she says: "I promise the people of Belfast that I will be an honest and open leader because I don’t think you can harm the reputation of your city by being a positive and honest leader. I will strive to go to all LGBT events that I can attend and if there's an ethnic minority event I can go to, I will."
But four months into her term, there's frustration about the absence of a sitting executive.
"As a council we have to pick up a lot of the pieces, in a job which is, frankly, not for council,” she says.
"There are issues like local environment which are not necessarily under our control but we have to do something about it. Community and voluntary groups are being undercut in funding and they are turning to council. We are trying our best to see if we can fit them in our existing funding programme. But we can't help everyone. We are trying to secure a City Deal [a major public and private infrastructure plan] for Belfast but we can't do that alone. We need a sitting executive."
McAllister has already found herself at the centre of press stories about trying to fudge an excuse not to attend President Donald Trump's next St Patrick's Day event and for not having grace said at her recent installation dinner because she's an atheist.
But it's all water off a duck's back. Referring to the Trump 'snub', she says: "I think it's funny as I’m genuinely not available, but I will be in Belfast on St Patrick’s Day and the day before and I will be in the US earlier that week.
"I won't get to meet the president even then; I will be in a room of 50 or so other people and only the taoiseach would get to meet him anyway."
She turns the questioning back on me when I tell her that I was at her installation dinner, on the press table.
"Do you say grace before you eat your meal? Did anyone at your table raise the fact that Grace wasn’t said? Did anyone in the room raise the fact that you didn’t say grace," she fires at me while I shake my head no.
"It was a storm in a teacup," she says, but adds that she made a point of speaking with all the leaders of the Christian Churches and Muslim faith that night and that no-one raised it with her.
"Had I stood up and said that there was not going to be grace because the lord mayor is an atheist, it would have been a same situation. You just can't win."
"I didn't want a chaplain as I provide my own guidance and I wouldn’t want to lie. I made it clear that I would not read from scripture during my year but would attend ceremonies or religious institutions as I believe it is expected, and should be, of the lord mayor as I’m representing everyone."
She was raised in a traditionally working-class nationalist community of the Antrim as one of eight siblings to parents Mark and Trea but developed a questioning attitude to just about everything when growing up, which saw her reject her faith as she simply "does not believe in God".
When her mother told her on Sunday morning that it would be a sin if she didn't go to Mass, teenager Nuala countered with: “I don’t believe in sins. I believe in law and I believe that you must be a good person."
While she understands the role that faith plays in people's lives – both Finn's grandparents are practising Christians – her place of comfort is her partner Sam, who grew up in the predominantly Protestant Rathcoole, and their 13-month-old son.
The Alliance Party is the only one that ever appealed to her as she studied politics at Dominican College, Belfast, and Ulster University; she was a fan of leader Naomi Long before she joined the party.
"I’m a progressive feminist and a progressive liberal. I believe in a woman’s right to choose and marriage equality, and I believe in integration," she says, unequivocally. "I’m very independent in the development of my opinions and always have been, as I always have asked questions."
Much has been made of the fact that McAllister is a young mother, and even with working an average of 10 hours, seven days a week, her role as lord mayor was an opportunity she was not going to let pass her by, despite being a relative newcomer to the council.
Did she feel that she had sufficient experience for the job?
"I think I did," she answers. "There are so many politicians that use the excuse of 'I’ve been here longer', or 'I know better', or, which I've heard myself, 'You haven’t been here very long', or 'You don’t know'.
"I just thought, why would I not want to go for it? I think the reason that I went for it was that I wanted to do it so young. I want to be a new face in Belfast as it has, more often than not, been older males which have been the lord mayor."
Were there eyebrows among any of the city hall's old guard at her election in May?
"Not within my party. I don’t think there were but if there have been, it hasn’t been to my face," she says.
McAllister is well aware of the youthful figure she presents as the Belfast's foremost public representative. Even Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, she says, did a double-take when she met him in Belfast for the Pride festival.
"I was in flats, in my jeans and wearing my big chain, and he essentially had to look down as he's so tall," she said.
"He was like, 'Is this really the lord mayor? It made me laugh, though. I do look very young and when I’m in my everyday clothes, I look about 16.
"When I go to meet some people, you can tell by the look in their eyes that are surprised or have this preconceived notion of whether you are experienced enough to be in this job,” she acknowledges.
“People are always pleasantly surprised that I can hold my own in a conversation, but if there is something that I don’t know, what I don’t do is pretend that I do, as people click on straight away.
"I think there would have been people who would have underestimated me in the past. But that just happens to anyone. I think I have proven myself so far to be worthy of the position of lord mayor and worthy enough to carry it out."