Northern Ireland news

Nichola Mallon faced 'sink or swim' dilemma after taking up infrastructure minister role

Infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon. Picture by Mark Marlow

THRUST into her first crisis also immediately, Nichola Mallon was faced with a "sink or swim" dilemma when she took on the role of infrastructure minister.

But the SDLP deputy leader quickly won praise for her "real can do attitude".

A prominent political figure, rising through the ranks of Belfast City Council to the corridors of Stormont, Ms Mallon was quickly out of the blocks.

On her first day, she pledged to minimise her carbon footprint and arrived in an electric car - it was clear she was keen to make her mark.

However, she was to face embarrassment a week later when her electric car was spotted in a bus lane in rush hour traffic.

In a statement, a department spokesman confirmed the incident was due to "human error" and that her driver, making a left turn, mistakenly entered the bus lane too soon.

But she had barely hit the ground running when she was thrown in the middle of an MOT crisis.

The Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) ordered the suspension of most vehicle roadworthy tests after faults were discovered in lift equipment at test centres.

Cracks in lift machinery were first detected last November, but the problem worsened forcing the suspension of tests in January.

It wasn't long before the issue was overtaken by coronavirus, but the minister was on hand to lend her department's resources to the battle and released all DVA test centres to help in the fight.

With the MOT controversy on hold, but the number of tests are rising, there's no doubt it is a major issue Ms Mallon will have to return to.

The 40-year-old was also at the forefront of other initiatives related to the executive's response to the pandemic.

She announced free travel for health and social care workers and was involved in the changes to travel services to accommodate staff getting to hospitals.

But like many other departments, infrastructure has faced significant budget pressures.

Ms Mallon is facing an overall shortfall of almost £240m, which include costs associated with Covid-19, issues facing Translink and a need for a major cash injection in the roads network.

Translink faces loss of sales of up to £130m, while NI Water's loss of income is around £30m, with a further £80,000 as a result of the decision to defer water bills.

Those financial woes were highlighted in April when Ms Mallon said it was a shock to be the only department outside the executive office not to receive an allocation from the department of finance's Covid-19 budget.

Some of the most high-profile initiatives she has given the green light to include extending waterfront spaces in Derry and the pedestrianisation of parts of Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, which won praise from the hospitality industry and campaigners for the promotion of greener socially distanced travel.

As part of her plan to create safer routes for walking and cycling and to encourage change in how people travel, she had been recently brought forward legislation encouraging the use of electric bikes, while also announcing the creation of a 'walking and cycling champion' within her department.

She also announced a public inquiry into controversial plans to develop a gold mine in the Sperrin mountains and a consultation for the redevelopment of Yorkgate Train Station.

But it has been the redevelopment of Casement Park that she has faced most calls to engage on.

A decision on planning approval lies with Ms Mallon, with pressure on her to move quickly on the project. But from the outset, she has been adamant she will not be pushed into a decision.

In a period of significant upheaval, those who work alongside Ms Mallon and those elected to scrutinise her handling of the role, appear impressed by her performance.

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