By Nathan Tran | Guest Contributor
“I just want her never to be held back by anything or anyone, and I think that’s the future that, hopefully, we are moving toward,” Michelle Kelly, deputy lord mayor of Belfast, said when speaking about the kind of future she envisions for her 13-month-old daughter.
Kelly, who was just recently elected into her position, said she is motivated to make sure her daughter grows up in a Belfast that’s different from the one she grew up in. While being raised by a single mother in the Titanic area of the city, Kelly said she witnessed immense poverty and mental health issues in her community.
“I was very much inspired by what I witnessed in my community … and I have seen that in my own family,” Kelly said. “I thought to myself, ‘Do I sit here and moan about things never changing, or do I get involved and actually try to help?’”
Kelly ran for council in 2019 and has quickly ascended the political ladder in the three years since. She said this sudden progression in her political career is still somewhat of a shock to her.
“I think it’s simply being addressed as deputy all the time — it’s very, very formal,” Kelly said. “I keep saying, ‘I’m just Michelle.’ ‘Deputy,’ that’s very, very strange. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that this year.”
Kelly said she is excited and honored to assume such an important role but understands it won’t be easy.
“People are quite stuck in their ways,” Kelly said. “They find it hard to see how things can only be done differently, and they think it might be too difficult to try something new. So it’s definitely sort of trying to get people on board and to work with people to achieve that, rather than just maintaining the status quo … That’s going to be my challenge this year.”
Kelly said it’s a very difficult job to be a woman in politics, as women are criticized “much more fiercely” than men.
“I think as women, we’re probably a little bit guilty ourselves in doubting ourselves,” Kelly said. “We don’t think about what we can do; we maybe think about what we can’t do. And that holds us back.”
Although there is a low percentage of women in politics, Kelly said she sees a bright future for women in local government.
“I like the fact that both our lord mayor and our deputy lord mayor this year are females,” Kelly said. “It has sent out a great message that it is possible. And yes, we kind of talk a lot less than the guys, but we seem to accomplish a lot more.”
Even though there are many challenges to being a woman in power, Kelly said the citizens of Belfast motivate her. She said the most inspirational one who comes to her mind is Mary Peters, a Northern Irish athlete who won the Olympic gold medal in 1972.
“As a woman, she’s a great inspiration, but also, she’s taken a lot forward since then, to work for the peace process and to bring both sides together,” Kelly said. “She’s a huge inspiration to me on many levels.”
Kelly said it’s seeing citizens like Peters that encourages her to work toward making change in Belfast. She said she believes she has the skills to accomplish her goal and lead the city into a brighter future.
“I think it’s how you conduct yourself, basically,” Kelly said. “Your own experiences are important, but it’s all about bringing people in alongside you where possible, rather than just heading down a road by yourself that you don’t know if anybody else is going to come on board.”
Frances Murray, the European officer at Belfast City Council, said she is excited to see the deputy lord mayor learn from her new role while bringing her own ideas for improvement to the council.
“Every year, we get to work with somebody new, which has its benefits and disadvantages,” Murray said. “You start to build up a relationship and then that person moves on, but then they go away with a wealth of knowledge and to get into the other committees and rules of council, which is very inspiring.”
Murray said this annual rotation comes with its fair share of challenges, but it keeps a consistent inflow of fresh ideas and processes.
Murray was born and bred in Belfast for the last 40 years and has come to see how much it’s changed. She said Belfast was a completely different place when she was younger.
“When I was growing up, if you were coming into town, you would have had an inspector come on outside the gates of the city hall here to make sure there was no security devices on before you come into the city center,” Murray said. “And then every time you went into shops, you were searched with your bags. All that’s gone.”
Murray said it’s refreshing to see all the new businesses and people who want to invest in the city themselves. She said she thinks the new economic development is in part due to those who have grown up in the city, seen Belfast change and wanted to pour back in the city.
Kelly said this and the influx of tourism not only helps her create change in her community but also aids in convincing the rest of the world to visit her beautiful home.
“We are an open, positive and vibrant city,” Kelly said. “I think we have such a beautiful city to call home. I really want to take that home and encourage people to come and visit us.”
As someone who has seen Belfast evolve from its war-torn past, Murray said she wants to help guide it in the same positive trajectory. She said she wants people to come experience Belfast and see it for what it is.
“We’ve got a saying here: You want the people to enjoy the craic,” Murray said. “That’s not the drugs; it’s the warmth, the hospitality, the good sense of humor that we have. We’d like to be focused on it ourselves, when you go home with a bit of Belfast in your heart.”