After driving the peace process for almost 30 years, the SDLP found themselves stranded on the hard shoulder post Good Friday Agreement. Searching for a new vehicle, a new destination, and a way to get there fast – on the 11th Jan 2020, the SDLP siezed their opportunity.
They nabbed the Green Party’s roadmap, Nichola Mallon grabbed the keys to the Department of Infrastructure (DFI) and they all headed off, on what they hoped would be a long road trip, to a carbon neutral future.
Changing forever the way we live
Then COVID happened. Not shying away from the challenges it presented – she saw this as a unique window of opportunity. On the 5th of May Nichola Mallon stood up in Stormont - in what could only be described as her keynote speech. She grabbed the steering wheel and pressed hard on the accelerator – setting out an incredibly progresive, ambitious new direction for her Department. A key announcement was the creation a new "Walking & Cycling Champion" – a co-pilot to guide her there. The new Walking & Cycling Champion would:
- ensure DFI delivered its commitment to increase the % of journeys made by walking and cycling;
- inspire our communities;
- restructure our spaces;
- change forever the way we live;
- increase the space available for walkers and cyclists;
- work with councils across the North to identify and transform areas quickly;
- transform communities across NI;
- Inspire a new way of living.
As it turned out - her co-pilot spoke a different travel language, didn’t know the terrain very well and was only available 1 day a week. Almost immediately the minister was veering off course. The steering lock was firmly on, and rather than accelerating toward the future – the car moved slowly in reverse, toward the A5 (Western Transport Corridor) via the York Street Interchange and calling at the Arc21 incinerator in Mallusk en route. There was clearly something seriously wrong under the bonnet.
her co-pilot spoke a different travel language, didn’t know the terrain very well and was only available 7 hours a week
A week later she tried again – announcing the closure of 2 tiny narrow, ancient cobbled streets in Belfast called Hill St and Gordon St – two streets barely wide enough to cycle down let alone drive a car. Cllr Karl Whyte (SDLP) claimed it was just the first step. Surely a Minister of Infrastructure would have the power to close a few cobbled streets? It appeared not.
While the Minister was struggling to control the car - her party colleague, Matthew O’Toole (Finance Spokesperson and member of the Public Accounts Committee) was riffling around under the bonnet, giving the NI Civil Service (NICS) a thorough MOT. The certificate said FAIL – “The NICS needs a radical overhaul”. Worth mentioning that the NICS had nobody behind the wheel at this stage.
In contrast, the public stood slow clapping Nichola Mallon and heaped scorn on the DFI
The DFI has a huge remit (roads, water, flood defence, public transport, active travel etc), and covers a lot of ground (most of that in tarmac). Adding a pandemic and staff shortages to that list must have been unbelieveably challenging. However, the Health Department faced monumental challenges – and the public stood on doorsteps clapping their heroic efforts, heaping praise on Robin Swann. In contrast, the public stood slow clapping Nichola Mallon and heaped scorn on the DFI – on social media anyway.
A year after her keynote, and only a measly few pop-up cycle lanes delivered in Belfast and nothing in Derry City or the rest of Northern Ireland - she was totally exposed.
At this point SDLP/Mallon had a few options:
- stop the car, pull the engine apart and make the vehicle roadworthy for the rest of what would be a very, very long journey;
- continue on, with a part-time co-pilot struggling with the terrain, and a vehicle totally unfit for the journey ahead.
Option 1 risked the accusation that she was unable to drive the car, and should never have been given the keys in the first place. Option 2 meant continually breaking down and never reaching the destination.
With the exception of creation of the Infrastructure Commission – a sort of running repair – she chose option 2.
With a part time co-pilot, no accelerator, the steering lock permanently on, and the vehicle going in reverse – the only thing left to try was the brake. She braked at the York Street Interchange. She did a hand-brake turn at the Mallusk incinerator. All she had was the brake. Nichola Mallon’s legacy may be the things she didn’t do – rather than the things she’d planned to do.
2 bruising years to the day after her keynote speech - on the 5th May 2022 – the voters asked Nichola Mallon to hand back the keys. She lost her ministerial job, and her executive job all in an afternoon as did the people working in her constituency office. All dumped at the side of the road and told to walk home. Devastating.
Like all her predecessors, she failed to change the direction of the department. They all start off in the driving seat – they all end up in the boot.
Like all her predecessors, she failed to change the direction of the department. They all start off in the driving seat – they all end up in the boot, hostage to old policies, old thinking and cultural inertia. Car ownership and car journeys continue to rise. How much was Mallon’s fault and how much was DFIs fault? The driver was clearly up for the journey, she may have niave thinking the vehicle was too – but we've all been guilty of that. Did this ultimately cost Mallon her job? There were other factors in play. However, had she reached a few significant milestones listed in her keynote, she may still have a constituency office and a ministerial car, and the SDLP might not have lost 4 seats.
The SDLP are once again on the hard shoulder, with no ministerial car, looking for another new vehicle, or a lift to another destination. Sinn Fein now have a fleet of 4 ministerial vehicles – John O’Dowd recently picked up the keys at DFI. He’s been around the block several times, having driven Education in the past.
He’s currently walking slowly around the car, kicking the tyres, looking under the bonnet, deciding if if really wants to get into the driving seat.
He’s currently walking slowly around the car, kicking the tyres, looking under the bonnet, deciding if if really wants to get into the driving seat. Will he get any further up the road to a carbon neurtal future? It's very doubtful – Nichola Mallon never got out of the driveway.