Lord Mayor Kate Nicholl wants children to write a better future for Belfast
New Belfast Lord Mayor Kate Nicholl is ringing the changes at City Hall. She tells Gail Bell about her unusual journey, the challenges of being a new mother in the top post and her hopes of amplifying the voices of women and children
BELFAST'S new first citizen, Kate Nicholl, is adapting athletically to her "very heavy necklace" but jokes she is still at some risk of toppling over during long, hot meetings in the council chamber.
"It weighs a tonne," quips the recently installed Lord Mayor of Belfast, who recounts – in-between paroxysms of laughter - how she almost fell off her chair when leaning over to retrieve a water bottle and forgetting all about her heavy chain of office at the inaugural meeting in June.
Somehow, the vision of this openly warm, sincere and good-humoured Lord Mayor being weighed down by anything - least of all a masculine mayoral chain - seems an incongruous one and after just five weeks in the top post she is getting things done her way, without fuss, fear or favour.
The immediate 'to do' list is an alternative and eclectic one. Settled at the top are children and young people - Action for Children is a mayoral 'charity of the year' – and their voices, through topical letters, have become the new mayor's unconventional way of opening monthly council meetings.
Other priorities are environmental affairs, women's issues and 'working together'.
She also wants to use the role to shine a light on lesser known but worthy projects - recent visits to a city farm and a women's centre proved equally enthralling - and, through her presence at various events, coax more women into the political arena.
As a new mother – her son Cian is now 20 months old – the 33 year-old, who describes herself as 'Zimbabwean-Irish' with a dislike of "inequality and the cold", is changing the working model from within, helping establish more flexible structures within the council building itself.
"There are definitely things we need to do internally in terms of making politics more suitable for young mums," she says, "and I am not sure if I had known just how demanding the role would be, in terms of evening engagements and weekend work, that I would have put myself forward for election so soon.
"I have taken a year off my marketing role [at Queen's University] because I have something in the diary pretty much every day. I'm trying very hard to drop Cian off in the mornings and collect him as many afternoons as possible.
"The team here have been very good at structuring engagements so I can put him to bed... we're working things out as we go."
Alliance councillor for the Balmoral area of south Belfast – and also a part-time Ulster University student, studying for a Masters in digital marketing – she has already broken down barriers when it comes to breastfeeding, not just in public, but also in the council chamber.
"I breastfed Cian in the chamber and received some mixed responses," she reveals chattily and clearly at ease in the plush surroundings of the Lady Mayoress's parlour.
"As a new mum, you're not always sure you're doing everything right anyway, and to have that added pressure of maybe feeling uncomfortable... I can tell you, if I have any more [children], everyone is just going to have to deal with it.
"More mums in these positions will help. I have been making a conscious effort to take Cian with me to events to show that it is perfectly possible and I think that the more women we have elected, the more it becomes the 'norm' and that will help address so many issues that exist."
Chief of these is the misogyny she has experienced since joining Belfast City Council in 2016. At one stage, the number of sexually explicit and abusive messages pinging into her inbox precipitated a prompt removal from social media entirely, but she has since returned – albeit with conditions and some degree of caution.
"It weirdly doesn't upset me and that's what I resent most – that I no longer find it shocking; I just find it sad," she says, resignedly.
"How I deal with it is by not responding to those messages. I don't know a single woman in politics who hasn't experienced it and the only way we can tackle it is by calling it out and putting pressure on social media channels to take more action."
An inner strength and empathy, particularly towards children, have been shaped, in part, by her arrival in Northern Ireland in 2000 as a wide-eyed 12 year-old – "so many varieties of yoghurts in the supermarkets..." - after fleeing civil unrest in Zimbabwe with her South Africa-born mother.
"Things were difficult; my parent's marriage had broken down and mum made the decision to leave very quickly - with £50 in her purse," she recalls.
"We had passports and that was a way out. There were people I went to school with, and I don't know what happened to their lives. I felt very lucky.
"I still get glimpses into my old life. I went back to Zimbabwe with my husband (Fergal Sherry) in 2017 – that's actually where he proposed to me, in Marondera - so I feel I have now come full circle."
After completing a degree in anthropology at University College London, an idealistic, "politically aware" young Kate worked as a researcher in Belfast for Alliance MLA Anna Lo and immediately felt "bitten by the bug".
"Anna had this inner integrity and was just wonderful," she enthuses. "I saw how a politician can really make such a difference, not just in an individual life, but in a community.
"I hope to stand for election to the Assembly myself next year because I feel there is a lot of work that Anna started that hasn't been finished, especially around the environment and ethnic minority communities. No-one is really a voice for them right now."
As Lord Mayor, she holds no illusions as to the extent of her own power – or budget – but is happy that in a myriad of small ways, her own role can empower others and help drive change.
"When I became mayor I really thought you would just open a building or visit a community centre and that's all part of it, but there is also this amazing power that can be used to connect people," she explains.
"I found that a very simple thing, like reading a child's letter about what they like and dislike about Belfast, to open the monthly council meetings, can drive change – literally.
"I read a letter from pupils at Fleming Fulton school at my first meeting in which they raised issues around accessibility with the Glider bus. It just happened that the next day I met Translink's CEO, Chris Conway, at a promotional photocall and told him - now he is going to get a Glider down to the school and engage with the pupils properly.
"That is what this role should be about and I want more pupils' letters. I want to exhibit them at the end of my year in office."
Any downsides to being Lord Mayor? "No, I just love it all. When I first moved here, my family had fallen apart and I had left the country I had grown up in," she expains.
"If I had written a letter to my 12-year-old self then, saying: 'Listen, in 20 years' time, you're going to be married to the best person, you're going to have a child and you are going to be Lord Mayor of Belfast... well, I have had a fairytale ending."
Schoolchildren's letters about Belfast can be sent to: Office of the Lord Mayor, Belfast City Hall, Belfast BT1 5GS.