Belfast councillor Mal O’Hara has become the first openly gay political leader in Northern Ireland after being named as the new leader of the Green Party.
O’Hara will replace Clare Bailey as leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, after she lost her seat in May’s Stormont assembly election.
Before embarking on his career in politics, O’Hara was an active LGBTQ+ rights campaigner, having worked for the Rainbow Project and acted as vice-chairman of Northern Ireland’s equal marriage campaign.
He joined the Green Party in 2014, and was elected to Belfast City Council in 2019. That same year, he became deputy leader of the party.
On Monday (15 August), O’Hara became leader of the party after he was elected unopposed.
In a statement posted to social media, he said: “I am beyond delighted to have been elected as the new leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland.
“I’ve big shoes to fill. Clare Bailey has been my mentor, boss, friend and confidant. As leader she led us to record council elections, [she] and Rachel Woods passed two pieces of law that will change lives and they forced the NI Executive to bring forward climate legislation for Northern Ireland.
“It’s time for a new generation of activists. We were right on marriage and abortion and we were always right on the environment. It is welcome that others are following our lead.
“Northern Ireland faces many challenges; cost of living, housing, mental health, reconciliation and of course the climate and biodiversity crises.
“I believe that Greens uniquely have the solutions to these challenges. We can create a fairer world and a fairer Northern Ireland. Come and be part of that.”
Mal O’Hara is determined to tackle homophobia in Northern Ireland
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mal O’Hara said he came out while at university in 1998, and that he was “lucky” his family and social circle were affirming.
“I know that is not the experience of everybody,” he said.
“I’ve had death threats, I’ve had harassment, I’ve had homophobic abuse, I’ve experienced all of that and that is what led me into LGBT activism.
“The fundamental failure is the executive promised a sexual orientation strategy in 2007; it is 2022 and that has still not been delivered and that is a key mechanism for addressing inequality.
“While I am very lucky, I am conscious that is not the experience of very many people across Northern Ireland.
“There has never been a better time to be LGBT, but there is still a lot of work to do to make sure it is better for coming generations.”
In an interview with The Irish Times, he added he hopes his new position will encourage the younger queer generation, and that it will be a step towards diversifying politics.
O’Hara said: “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.”