‘Trump runs contrary to what I want for a global Belfast’

Belfast Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister at home baking with her son Finn
Belfast Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister at home baking with her son Finn

It is only a few days since Belfast’s Lord Mayor, Nuala McAllister, unwittingly found herself at the centre of a furore with some of the city fathers.

The fuss centred around the 28-year-old atheist dispensing with prayers before her installation dinner at City Hall - a move which some described as an unwelcome departure form tradition.

The story made newspaper headlines and the Lord Mayor took to the airwaves to defend her position.

Sitting in the lavish Lady Mayoress’ parlour at City Hall, surrounded by ornate furniture and antiques, this modern, millennial mayor is still a bit bamboozled by the commotion caused by not saying Grace and stresses her intention was never to offend.

‘‘I don’t like when I’m misrepresented because I am an honest person. There was no meaning to disrespect or no offence needed to be caused,’’ she says.

‘‘It was a night to celebrate my year as Lord Mayor and bring together those people who basically share my vision of a global Belfast - one that is open, welcome and inclusive.

‘‘There was an opportunity for people to say Grace if they wished to do so at their own table. I was respecting everyone because there were people from all different faith sectors that were in the room that evening.’’

No sooner was the prayers issue put to bed than Nuala McAllister hit the headlines again, this time after it emerged she would not be attending Donald Trump’s St Patrick’s celebrations next year at the White House due to a full diary.

‘‘I have been to Washington DC before to the St Patrick’s Day celebrations, and I am going to represent Belfast in Chicago and New York in a week’s time, so for me it was about weighing up, what do we do, where do we go, and we have so many items on the agenda for March, so it isn’t as simple as being too busy. I want to be in Belfast for St Patrick’s Day,’’ she clarifies.

However, the youthful mayor, who describes herself as a ‘‘liberal feminist’’ added: ‘‘Donald Trump runs contrary to what I am trying to achieve in a global Belfast. I am not going to lie and say I support the man, but he is the president of the United States and I don’t want to offend people like the US Consul General Dan Lawton who works in Belfast and who spends a lot of time here building relationships and helping us.

‘‘The United States didn’t turn its back on us when it was our darkest time, instead they got involved to help us reach the Good Friday Agreement.

‘‘So whilst I won’t be in Washington DC for St Patrick’s Day I won’t be snubbing the United States, I’ll make sure that we maintain our relationships. And who knows maybe Donald Trump won’t be president by March,’’ she laughs.

One politician she would meet ‘‘in a heartbeat’’ is the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

She visibly cheers when speaking about the leader of the Liberal Party.

‘‘I am very much a liberal person in terms of tolerance and acceptance. Broadly speaking I think he (Justin Trudeau) is providing a great image. It’s very much in contrast to the image Donald Trump is providing.’’

Nuala McAllister became Belfast’s first citizen - the fourth woman to hold the post and the first young mother - in June, succeeding the DUP’s Brian Kingston as Lord Mayor. She still finds it all a bit surreal.

‘‘Sometimes I think I am living in a bubble or I’m on the outside looking in because I just can’t quite believe it,’’ she says.

‘‘From day one you literally hit the ground running. June was super busy, July, you have a bit of a lull so I took a two-week break for the holidays, and this week is busy again.’’

On the afternoon we meet, she has just come from the official launch of the new multi- million pound George Best Hotel, after our interview she’ll go home to spend a few hours with her one-year-old-son Finn, collecting some online grocery shopping on the way, then it’s back to City Hall for evening engagements.

It sounds exhausting, but she’s sanguine.

‘‘It’s fine, you just do it. We want Finn to look back when he’s older and be like ‘whoa, did my mummy do that whenever she was so young?’; or even look at my portrait and say ‘that’s my mummy’. We want him to know that Belfast really is a great place to live and that he’ll be able to achieve anything and, importantly, women will be able to achieve anything.’’

Wearing the chain of office (which had to be adjusted to fit her slight frame), she explains the day-to-day duties of Lord Mayor - and if anyone thought it was just pressing the flesh and ribbon-cutting, they would be sorely mistaken. ‘‘One of the main elements of my job is to show off Belfast, my city, to people who already live here, or are coming to live here or coming to invest or visit.

‘‘If we have investors coming into the city, we would bring them into City Hall and I would meet with them. I would discuss our Belfast agenda, our strategic plan for the city. I would tell them how we are growing, how our knowledge economy is growing. I would tell them about our tourist industry, our universities.

‘‘Perhaps one of the most important things I would tell them what it is like to live here.’’

She admits she often burns the midnight oil reading and researching. ‘‘You have to know a lot of things. You have to sit up at night reading quite a lot of information.’’

But of course the primary function of the Lord Mayor is chairing the full council meetings which happen on the first working day of every month. ‘‘I quite enjoy it, my bossy side gets to come out, ’’ she laughs.