Belfast councillor Mal O’Hara has been appointed as new leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland.
Mr O’Hara said his focus would be on winning back the Stormont seats lost in the last election and building support for the party in new areas.
“The appetite will be there from the wider public to have Greens back in the Assembly again,” he said. “As we face the cost-of-living crisis and how tough this winter is going to be, the solutions that we put forward as Greens will resonate with people and I think we’ll see that resurgence in green electoral politics over coming years.”
The new leader also said he hoped that, as the first openly gay leader of a significant political party in the North, he would prove an inspiration to others and help change Northern Ireland’s political landscape.
“I hope that says to the next generation of LGBT activists that you can be what you can see. That means you can be the leader of a party, that means you can be an elected representative, and that broadens the political representation in the North.
“I think we have an over-representation of heterosexual older men of a certain class, and politics needs to change and be more diverse and representative of those wider communities and I think that brings us better politics.”
He said that although there was “still a lot of work to be done” to tackle issues such as homophobia, racism and misogyny in Northern Ireland, there had “never been a better time to be an LGBT person in Northern Ireland” and he believed it was “catching up” in terms of minority rights.
“We get suckered in, I think, to the discourse around the constitutional question, and then other issues start to play second fiddle, and I think there’s an appetite out there that that changes,” he said.
The 43-year-old from north Belfast, who was the party’s deputy leader, has represented the Castle ward on Belfast City Council since 2019.
He was the only candidate to replace Ms Bailey, who chose not to put her name forward for the leadership following the party’s disappointing result in the Northern Ireland Assembly election in May.
Both Ms Bailey and her party colleague Rachel Woods — who were the party’s only MLAs — lost their seats, leaving the Green Party without representation in the Northern Assembly.
The party’s rules require a leadership election to be held after every Assembly election.
Mr O’Hara said the narrative of the election had been framed “around those constitutional questions ... Brexit and the protocol and a nationalist first minister and, in terms of the centre, there was a feeling of, if you’re fed up with the big two, vote for Alliance, so we got squeezed on all sides.
“That’s not what we were anticipating, that’s not what we heard on the doors ... but that was the outcome and I think that’s the swings and roundabouts of elections — you win seats and you lose seats.
“For Clare [Bailey], it was a disappointing result and she felt she was ready to move on from leadership and it was ready for a new generation of activists to step up in leadership of the party,” he said.
He said that although the “frank reality is we’re still a post-conflict society and still much of our narrative is dominated by those [constitutional] issues”, recent events — not least the heat warnings across Ireland and drought in England — “have really focused people’s minds that climate change is here”.
“Green issues have never been as much to the forefront of people’s minds [as they are now] and I think the challenge for us is to shape that message and how that connects to people’s everyday lives.”