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Nichola Mallon speaks of Stormont dysfunction, DUP blockages and a border poll by the end of the decade

SDLP Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon tells political correspondent John Manley about her growing frustration with the workings of the Executive, the DUP's blocking of abortion services and how she believes there will be a border poll before the end of the decade

Nichola Mallon believes there will be a border poll before 2030. Picture by Mal McCann

NICHOLA Mallon stresses that she wants to be open with the public and accordingly her honest assessment of the current state of regional politics is damning.

Whether it's the surreptitious appointment of a civil service ‘deputy head’ or the ongoing failure to commission abortion services, the SDLP infrastructure minister appears deeply frustrated.

There’s no indication yet that she’ll walk out of the executive ahead of next May’s elections but her tone suggests there’s definite potential for the SDLP to move into opposition in the future, as it did in 2016.

“The executive is increasingly dysfunctional,” Ms Mallon told The Irish News earlier this week.

“We entered in good faith under New Decade New Approach but the truth is yes it’s a new decade but it’s the same old approach.”

The North Belfast MLA insists she’s working as much as she can "honouring commitments" but claims her efforts are consistently hindered.

“It’s no secret that much of the executive business is carved up and done behind closed doors before it comes to the executive,” she said.

“Papers are circulated late and sometimes you’ll receive an agenda just before, or even when inside an executive meeting – that’s no way to do business.”

One area where it's argued that Stormont is underperforming is in its failure to address the issue of abortion services.

The British government has recently said it intends to take on new powers that would allow it to compel the executive to provide abortion services.

The law was liberalised last year following action taken at Westminster - yet availability of services remains piecemeal, with further rollout dependent on executive approval.

The SDLP minister, who previously would've described herself as ‘pro-life’, is unambiguous in what she believes must happen – and why it isn’t.

“Robin Swann should be bringing a paper to the executive and it should be being dealt with by the executive but it’s being blocked by the DUP," she says.

"As an executive minister I have legal obligations and so I won’t shy away from my legal obligations."

Ms Mallon accuses the DUP of “picking and choosing” which parts of the law it wants to adhere to.

When pressed on whether supporting the commissioning of abortion services is at variance with her moral views, she stresses that her responsibilities as minister come first in relation to what is a “very complex and difficult situation”.

She argues for a “compassionate approach” and says the debate should not be reduced to “abortion or not” but broadened to encompass support for women who find themselves in “crisis pregnancies”, tackling domestic abuse, and creating better support networks for disabled children.

“The DUP has been very vocal on the issue of the UK government imposing its will on this matter, then why did the DUP not allow this issue to be dealt with in the devolved sphere?” she says.

On all-Ireland matters and the potential for Irish unity, Ms Mallon adopts the SDLP’s familiar line that chimes, for the most part, with Fianna Fáil’s.

Notably, however, she believes there will be a border poll before 2030, seemingly a new departure for a senior SDLP representative.

“My view is there will be a referendum in this decade but rather than obsess over dates, the SDLP has always been clear we’re very much obsessed with the hard work and that means setting out exactly the type of society we want and setting out to people what they’ll be voting for,” she says.

“That for me is the focus rather than having rows or taking potshots."

In the coming weeks, the SDLP will launch its New Ireland Commission, an initiative that complements Taoiseach Micheál Martin's Shared Island Unit, what Ms Mallon says is a “tangible outworking” of the cross-border policy partnership the two parties undertook more than two years ago – though arguably the only one.

The Fianna Fáil leader has faced criticism in recent weeks for what his detractors characterise as a lacklustre approach to progressing Irish unity. The North Belfast MLA defends the taoiseach and argues that with the Shared Island Unit, he has put "his money where his mouth is”.

“I agree with Micheál when he says that we need to set out clearly what we’re asking people to vote for - for me that’s the focus, as someone who genuinely believes in this the serious work here is about mapping it out," she says, pointing to the EU referendum as a lesson in how not to do things.

The minister believes the conversation around Irish unity is “gaining momentum” but she says many questions about the character of a new Ireland must addressed prior to a border poll, including the future state’s education healthcare, economic systems, as well as taxation and social security provision.

“Rather than obsess about dates, which is the lazy thing to do, the important thing is focusing on what kind of new Ireland we will build, what we’re going to be asking people to vote for,” she says.

Ms Mallon concedes that political unionism is “reticent” when it comes to debating potential constitutional change and she would like to see greater engagement but she says “behind the scenes” the SDLP is having conversations with “grassroots” people from very different backgrounds.

“What we’re finding is that people in the unionist community want to have a conversation, they want to have their views and their voices heard and they want to be part of a conversation in terms of what kind of future do we want, what principles and values do we want to base that society."

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