Meet the Afro-Irish Alliance Party candidate tired of boring, wooden political rhetoric who wants to breathe life into the North Down council, dismantle racism in Northern Ireland, and inspire people to get involved in the democratic process.
he big yellow door at the Alliance Party headquarters opens and a staffer escorts me back to an overly-warm office smelling of perfume where I am greeted in an unplaceable accent by the ebullient, wavy-haired Kate Nicholl. After a minute of small talk and banter Kate runs off to the kitchen to grab me a mug of green tea and I am left in silence to take in my surroundings.
Splashes of yellow blurt out from every corner of the room. Yellow party literature, yellow daffodils, yellow party pens. Dozens of Thank You cards from constituents and integrated schools are displayed atop the shelves and two desks. Behind me, on the filing cabinet, is a Brian John Spencer cartoon of Anna Lo raising up two hands in a peace-sign salute.
Recent editions of The New Statesman and printouts of various policy documents are strewn across the desk. A Stratagem Public Affairs notepad peaks out from underneath a copy of Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora, a book, as I learn later from Google, that chronicles the experiences of women from across the island of Ireland who travel to Britain for access to safe and legal abortions.
When Kate returns, she says the other party staffers give her flack for cranking up the space heater in her office. It’s not energy friendly, they say. But Kate has never gotten used to Belfast’s cold winters. Originally from Zimbabwe, it’s not in her nature to be cold.
Kate was born in Zimbabwe and lived there until she was a teenager. Her mother, from South Africa, married her father, from North Down, and they started a family in Northern Ireland. Because of ongoing violence and instability, Kate’s family left Northern Ireland to set up life in Zimbabwe. Until political trouble erupted in 2000, life there was peaceful and enjoyable and punctuated by a family obsession with cricket.
The first white farmer to be shot during Mugabe’s land reforms was Kate’s neighbour, a father of one of her school mates. As the political situation in the country grew increasingly volatile, Kate’s parents brought the family back to County Down. Except for her university years in London, Kate has been in Northern Ireland since she was thirteen.
Kate’s accent bears the marks of a life that has been picked up and transplanted—it’s hybrid, not one thing or the other. I ask her to discuss how her background and accent affect her experience as a politician in Northern Ireland.
“It’s an icebreaker. The first thing people ask me is where I am from. And Zimbabwe is an unusual place to come from. And being a Zimbabwean working in Northern Irish politics is even more unusual.”
Kate identifies as both Northern Irish and Zimbabwean and describes her self on Twitter as Afro-Irish. She’s proud of her Zimbabwean childhood, her mother’s family’s South African roots (and participation in the anti-apartheid movement), and her father’s Northern Irishness. “Identity is really interesting because you’re not just one thing. You’re not just one personality trait, you’re a combination of different things. I’m a mixture, I’m a mongrel.”
Kate plays an extensive role in the development of the Alliance Party’s shared future policy and worked closely alongside Chris Little on a project for victims and survivors. But people have commented, even friends, that she’ll never really understand the history of Northern Ireland.
She takes on this criticism with humility. She believes that her own experiences and background provide a unique perspective. “I am removed, on one level, but I’m also invested because I do have this Northern Irish side and I live here and I work in Stormont. And things are changing. I work for a politician who was born in Hong Kong. Northern Ireland is becoming more diverse and more accepting of that.”
Last week, after speaking out in favour of removing paramilitary murals and flags from the route of the Giro d’Italia, Alliance Party MLA Anna Lo became the victim of online racist abuse.
Kate, who works in the Alliance office with Ms Lo as a researcher, told me that the racist attacks were horrific. “It’s funny, because I found it really upsetting. I was sitting in her office and first became aware of it because of the Loyalists Against Democracy blog post. I was really upset, and I said to her, ‘How do you feel about this?’ And she was sitting at her desk and she just looked up at me and said, ‘I won’t be intimidated,’ and put her head down and carried on working. That’s the way she is.”
Ms Lo is extremely professional, Kate tells me, but she’s also used to racism in Northern Ireland. “She came to Northern Ireland in the seventies and she used to get kicked on the street. She’s suffered a lot of racist abuse. Mark Carruthers made the really good point in his book that now when she would walk down Royal Avenue, everyone would know who she is.”
“I’m incredibly proud to work for her. She’s so dignified. The comments were vile but they are from a tiny minority. If anything, the response that we’ve had since that has been overwhelmingly positive.”
The ordeal raises the larger question of dealing with racism in Northern Ireland. “There is a lot that we can do. The racial equality strategy which we’ve been waiting for for ten years. OFMDFM need to get their act together. They’re not always the speediest. With Together Building a United Community, that should be coming soon.”
Another way government can tackle racism, Kate says, is by supporting the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities’s proposal of setting up a Black and Minority Ethnic Parliament for Northern Ireland, which would provide a forum for increased participation.
Marriage Equality and Abortion
When I bring up the topics of marriage equality and abortion, Kate lets out a sigh, then sits up straight and begins speaking very candidly.
“There has been problems within the party about this. I won’t deny that. But party policy is in favour of same sex marriage. Eighty percent of party council voted in favour of it. And I’m proud of that.”
“For me marriage equality is not a question. If someone said they wouldn’t vote for me because of the marriage equality issue I would completely understand that and I would be happy to talk about it but it’s not something I am ever going to change my mind on. Equality is non-negotiable.”
“I have gay friends that are like my family and if anyone told anyone in my family that they couldn’t be with someone they loved I would be outraged, so yes, that’s something I’m pretty strong on.”
Kate understands the concern coming from churches, but points out that the proposed legislation protects those churches who don’t want to perform same sex ceremonies, and argues that religious freedom must also be protected.
On abortion, Kate relays the party line, then explains her own moral reasoning. “I’m always told you have to say this, it’s a matter of conscience. There’s no policy on it.”
“I am pro-choice. I’m of the view that criminalising abortion doesn’t stop abortions, it stops safer abortions. I have real issues with the inequality around it. I don’t think it’s just a feminist issue, I think it’s a class issue. Women who can afford to go to England to terminate an unwanted pregnancy can do so if they have £4,000 of disposable income. Working-class women may not be able to access that kind of money. And it is swept under the carpet, I don’t think it’s dealt with.”
“I understand that people have huge issues with this, and I totally respect that, they genuinely are opposed. But I have problems with vulnerable women being harassed when they go into clinics. I think we need to move to a place where we can safely talk about what women need and how they can best be protected.”
Alliance Party values, personal politics, and reaching beleaguered voters
“I came back to Northern Ireland and got involved in politics because I believe in equality, I believe we need to do everything we possibly can to live together in peace.”
“I genuinely believe that Alliance offers the most. We’ve been fighting against this for forty five years trying to bring people together. Alliance believe in a shared future, and we genuinely mean it. That phrase has lost a lot of meaning a long the way. But when you really think about it, that’s the most important thing right now.”
“I never believed that I could be a member of a political party. But you’ll never agree 100% with any manifesto—it’s impossible. But I joined the party in December when I saw Alliance representatives come under serious attack simply for standing up for a policy that we’ve had for twelve years [designated days on flying the Union Flag]. And the way they dealt with it with such dignity and real courage. And that’s what inspired me to join.”
“As an Alliance candidate, I want to talk like a normal person, I really hate the wooden, political, I hate the boringness of it all basically. I want to see a bit more life in councils. I want to see people be able to discuss issues and debate them in a civil way. Not where it becomes some sort of attack. Politics should be personal, because we’re people, and you should relate to people on that level. So you should treat them accordingly. You may not agree with their views, but you know that’s another person. I think that element of humanity is largely missing in Northern Irish politics.”
“I think that if you are frustrated, which a lot of people are right now, you have an obligation to use that frustration and to change it into a vote for something that you think can make it better.”
On Ireland’s most recent T20 victory over the West Indies
“This is almost as good news as when Zimbabwe beat Pakistan in the second test in September, I’m truly delighted!”
I write about faith, democracy and culture from a Christian and centre-left perspective.