Nichola Mallon: Innovating in a once-stagnant North

The Infrastructure Minister and Trinity graduate discusses what she’s achieved and what’s still to come

When discussing Northern Ireland’s track record on its handling (or rather non-handling) of the climate crisis, Minister Nichola Mallon references a probably-apocryphal Albert Einstein quotation: “The definition of madness is repeating the same thing and expecting different results”. 

Minister of Infrastructure, deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and Trinity College alumnus, Mallon was more than enthusiastic in our discussion about tackling climate change with innovative policies. Her determination to tackle climate change in the North and introduce more sustainable modes of living is illustrated by her being the first-ever minister to opt for an electric car in execution of her public duties. Mallon understands the importance of sending such a message to her constituents. She would “never ask [her constituents] to do something [she] is not willing to do herself”, and stresses the responsibility she feels to outwardly and practically demonstrate her values. 

Accepting that transport is the second-largest contributor to the climate crisis in the North, the new policies implemented by Mallon’s department are directed primarily towards the transport sector, in hope of actively decarbonising the region’s planes, trains and automobiles. The department’s policies include investing in several hydrogen-fuelled buses, alongside a plan to build the first hydrogen fuelling station on the island of Ireland. Additionally, the Department of Infrastructure has put aside a generous £96 million in funding for low and zero-emission buses and twenty-one additional train carriages. This implementation aims to encourage more people to utilise Northern Ireland rail services and other more sustainable modes of transport. In alignment with SDLP values, Minister Mallon has championed a much-needed strategic rail review with Irish Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan, hoping to improve journeys across the island. This cross-national and cross-governmental agreement marks another first for the Northern Irish Department of Infrastructure. 

From interviewing Minister Mallon, it is clear that her strategies for tackling climate change and encouraging innovative policies are venturous and progressive.  Her department saw the Covid-19 as an opportunity to be more experimental with its ideas and projects. It implemented trials of pedestrianisation and pop-up cycle lanes in Belfast and Derry city, with much success, and implored fellow members of Stormont and residents of Northern Ireland to take advantage of the successes and insights gained during the pandemic.

“Witnessing an MLA with such dedication to progressive policies when tackling climate change is a breath of fresh air for Northern Irish politics.”

Mallon also implored the government to maintain its willingness to explore new policies and be prepared to “hold up [our] hands and say at least we tried” if an idea does not succeed. Witnessing an MLA with such dedication to progressive policies when tackling climate change is a breath of fresh air for Northern Irish politics. It is common knowledge that some of Minister Mallon’s fellow MLAs have taken firm and public anti-Climate Change and science-skeptic stances. Sammy Wilson, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party and former minister for the environment, has repeatedly and emphatically relayed his belief of climate change to be a con green “propaganda”, as he calls it. With such beliefs polluting the Northern Irish government, it is a relief to see the region’s first climate targets finally being set earlier this month all thanks to the dedication and perseverance of science-trusting MLAs and Ministers like Nichola Mallon. 

“Mallon hopes to “dispel the myth that only the wealthy and well-educated have all the answers.”

Therefore, with devoted and creative Ministers like Mallon at the head of government today, Northern Ireland’s future appears to be headed in a more sustainable and climate-conscious direction. Mallon is also hopeful about achieving more representative governance across her constituency, not to mention Northern Ireland more generally. She explicitly says that constituents of all gender identities, socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities, and levels of physical ability will be presented with the opportunity to have their voices heard, and hopes to “dispel the myth that only the wealthy and well-educated have all the answers.” 

As a fellow Belfast native, witnessing Minister Mallon’s enthusiasm, optimism, and innovation firsthand, I can’t help but feel confident about the future of climate action and great progress in Northern Ireland.