THE North's Minister for Infrastructure has called for a fairer and more compassionate society to emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic.
In a wide-ranging interview with belfastmedia.com, Nichola Mallon promised to hold the British government to account for failing to implement an Irish Language Act and also spoke of her desire to see Casement Park finally built.
The North Belfast MLA said the pandemic has exposed inequalities in society, and has shone a light on how those working the hardest on the frontline combating the virus and keeping essential services running are often underpaid and overworked.
“This crisis has brought into sharp focus, and deepened, the inequalities in our society," she said. "It exposed the fact that our vital key workers are among the lowest paid. While capitalism tells us that we are a collection of individuals, this virus has powerfully reminded us that we are stronger when we are together as a community, a society.”
The SDLP Minister said that as society recovers, steps must be put in place to avoid the "deep structural inequality inherent in our economic system and society". However, she fears that "when the pain and damage wrought by the pandemic lifts, society will not take the necessary steps to remedy the issues which the pandemic has exposed".
“So for me we are all facing a massive test. Are we just going to go back to doing everything exactly the same way as we did before? Or are we going to build a fairer society, a better and more compassionate society? And my fear is that we aren’t seizing this opportunity for change in the way we should, which is a shame, given all of the suffering, pain and loss families across this island and the world have endured.”
Nichola Mallon condemned levels of poverty across the North, which have risen since the beginning of the pandemic and been made worse in recent weeks by ever rising energy prices. The Minister branded the growing number of food banks as a failure of government.
This #FuelPovertyAwarenessDay we're reiterating the @fuelpovertyni's call for the establishment of a Fuel Poverty Taskforce for Northern Ireland. Even before price rises this year, too many terminally ill people were struggling to heat their home. Long term solutions are needed. pic.twitter.com/xCKvF8B5zm— Marie Curie NI (@MarieCurieNI) December 3, 2021
“As a result of this pandemic and spiralling energy prices, I see families struggling to make ends meet," she said. "I hugely admire all those who work in food banks but the number of food banks across the North is a damning indictment of the failure of government.
"If we empower people out of the cycle of poverty, then we will dramatically improve their physical and mental health and wellbeing, we will enhance their opportunities in life, increase their life expectancy, and build a fairer and more just society.”
STRAINS ON DEPARTMENT
Speaking on her role as Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon said the pandemic had put strains on all departments of government and caused severe stress to the transport network, resulting in delays and costs.
The Minister said her achievements in combating the pandemic included turning DVA centres into public health Coronavirus testing sites, and also giving the car park at Crumlin Road Gaol over for use as an ambulance decontamination site. Workers at the Mater Hospital were also provided with free parking, and public transport has been made free and available to all health and social care workers.
However, the Minister noted that part of her role was having to make tough decisions, and decisions to ensure public safety which were sometimes unpopular.
“I never ever thought I would be a minister and I certainly never expected to be a minister in the middle of a pandemic, having to take difficult and unprecedented decisions impacting on people’s lives. It’s been personally very challenging to take the difficult decisions on public health that have affected all of us but I’ve always focused on doing what I believe is the right thing to do, not what is popular or easy. And much of what has had to be done has not been popular and certainly not easy but that’s what’s required to save lives and save livelihoods. We have to put people first and every day that is my focus.”
NO TRUST IN BORIS JOHNSON
On the issue of the Irish Language Act, Nichola Mallon stated that she did not believe the British Government would stick to their word regarding legislation, and added that she and colleagues in the SDLP would continue to hold the government to account.
“I do not trust a word Boris Johnson or this Tory government says. An Irish Language Act should have passed through the Assembly a long time ago. The fact that it hasn’t is shameful. There is an obligation on the British Government to deliver on this and the SDLP will hold their feet to the fire to do so.”
Ulster GAA remain committed to deliver a new, fit for purpose Provincial Stadium at @CasementPark, Belfast. A key success of our strategic plan to date has been the granting of formal planning permission for the Casement Park project. pic.twitter.com/nhZRE7EqL6— Ulster GAA (@UlsterGAA) December 21, 2021
Speaking about the continuing issue of Casement Park, Nichola Mallon stated a desire to see the stadium built. Having signed off on the final planning permission in July, there are still ongoing issues with the building of the stadium, including continued opposition from one residents' group whose planned judicial review will take place in March.
“It is long past time that the GAA had a state-of-the-art home in Ulster. As Minister I approved planning permission for Casement Park. I want to see Casement built as quickly as possible with funding from the Executive in place to make that happen.”