As an engineer with an interest in politics, I have occasionally wondered whether governments could be run better if the people trained to solve problems were in charge, asks Ken Mitchell, as he interviews engineer/politician Naomi Long.
What would be the effect, if our politicians were engineers and trades people rather than primary teachers, lawyers and generational 'family' politicians? It is an arrogant question, I realise, but I suspect people in many other professions ask similarly.
To my knowledge there is only one TD with an engineering background: Stephen Donnelly of Wicklow. North of the border, there is similarly one representative of our profession and she is making a massive difference to Northern Irish politics and civic society. That woman is Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party.
Those of us with even a passing regard to Northern Irish politics know it's in an intransigent state with nationalists and unionists squaring off, neither side willing to compromise for fear of being seen as a traitor.
Naomi Long and the Alliance party have for years rejected both of these viewpoints and offered the electorate a third choice and a way out of this political stagnation.
Naomi Rachel Long MEP
After years of slow and steady progress and under Long's leadership, the party made a massive breakthrough at the recent local elections with a 65 per cent rise in its representation and also gained one of Northern Ireland's three MEP seats.
Naomi Rachel Long MEP (née Johnston) has been leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland since 2016.
Starting out in politics as a local councillor in 2001, she has served as the lord mayor of Belfast, a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), a Member of Parliament (MP) and currently as a Member of the European Parliament.
In fact, she is the only active politician in Northern Ireland to have served in every elected position and in 2016, Long was elected Alliance leader unopposed following the resignation of David Ford.
The Alliance party considers itself an anti-sectarian party, committed to building a "united, open, liberal and progressive" society with policies including the harmonisation and strengthening of equality and anti-discrimination measures, the introduction of civil marriage equality, development of integrated education and a Northern Ireland framework to tackle climate change.
Eager to learn more about this politician and to see if her engineering background was in any way connected to her political success, I recently interviewed her.
Did you always want to be an engineer?
I think it was a gradual process. I grew up in East Belfast where there is a strong engineering tradition and my father worked in the Harland and Wolff shipyard.
He was also the house handyman and I grew up watching him do the DIY - in a way he was my first engineering hero. After he died, when I was 11 years old, I took over that family role and that helped me develop a technical mind.
I then followed in his footsteps spending my first work experience in the shipyard’s apprentices’ workshop, gaining valuable practical experience. It was an amazing experience and helped me make up my mind up to study engineering.
I studied civil engineering at Queen’s University. Queen’s opened my mind to both my professional potential and to the benefits of integration and diversity. I graduated in 1994 and would subsequently go back after a few years to conduct industrial research and training.
What engineering projects did you work on?
After graduation, I worked in a mixed civil and structural engineering consultancy. Part of my role was assessing bridges by taking core samples and calculating the load bearing capacity, then deciding if they needed such things as weight restrictions, repair or rehabilitation.
A major project I worked on was the rehabilitation of the Belfast Gasworks site. This was one of my favourite projects, as it transformed this contaminated land into a modern office and hotel complex, while retaining and restoring the original Victorian architecture.
In particular, I was delighted to work on the entrance pillars and water feature which provide an impressive vista to visitors to the reinvigorated buildings and are also some of the few bits of my work which aren’t buried underground!
After my postgraduate research, I worked with an environmental and hydraulic engineering consultancy, and my role was in sewerage rehabilitation schemes - not glamorous work but absolutely essential to protecting public health and the environment.
Would you encourage more women to become engineers?
I most definitely would encourage women to take up engineering whether at professional, technical and trade level, the latter being an area where women are particularly unrepresented.
Currently, women tend to enter hardworking jobs that traditionally pay less and provide fewer opportunities. My own experience as an engineer was a positive one: most people judged me on ability rather than gender and as more women become engineers and apprentices, it diminishes as an issue.
Engineering and trades provide adaptable skills that are in high demand, so it gives people the freedom and confidence to make life choices that suit their needs.
You recently opened up about your battle with chronic pain due to endometriosis. Can you tell me more?
I feel there is a stigma around women's health that needs to be tackled head on. In my own situation, I would struggle through the pain but still get my job done both in my engineering and political positions, and then collapse in exhaustion once I got home.
It affected my personal life, pretending everything was normal, only letting myself succumb when I wasn't working or on holidays. I encourage other people, and especially women, to be open and upfront about hidden disabilities and especially those that affect women.
A lot of work still needs to be done with employers and employees in regard to communication on these issues, particularly where you have women working in non-traditional sectors where discussion of personal health issues can be more awkward.
What got you into politics?
Like many in Northern Ireland, I was frustrated at the failure of politics with mostly male politicians shouting at each other and not listening.
The Good Friday Agreement gave me hope: I saw an opportunity for change and wanted to be part of it. I started helping out with the Alliance party and was asked to run for the local council.
I was initially reluctant; in fact, I only agreed because I thought I would never be elected. I did campaign hard as the issues mattered to me and I won the seat.
Are there any parallels between engineering and politics?
Both are about solving problems and making things work better. I believe that politics would work better if politicians took an evidence and logic based approach to problems and policy. I would love if some politicians spent less time looking for someone to blame and instead sought compromise and solutions that benefited all. As engineers, we have to manage large projects, teams and budgets, not overpromise and control project creep, but still deliver. That’s a skill I think would be very useful for politicians to have!
Would you encourage other engineers to get into politics?
Most definitely. If all politicians are lawyers, they will only look at issues from a legal perspective and not consider more diverse and equally valid viewpoints.
I'd also like to see more scientists, business people, and women in politics and, in the end, councils, assemblies and parliaments which are more representative of the people are better able to produce solutions to match society’s needs.
What is your opinion on the proposed bridge to Scotland - speaking from both an engineering and political perspective?
In my opinion it is a purely political proposal which will face many obstacles. It's a political umbilical cord dreamt up by unionists in order to provide some kind of physical reassurance that Northern Ireland will forever remain attached to Britain.
From an engineering perspective, it faces major obstacles such as the Beaufort Dyke (full of dumped munitions), extremely high winds and rough seas, the fact that it crosses busy shipping lanes, the visual aesthetic on the Irish coastline and the exorbitant costs not to mention the lack of demand.
While I love ambitious engineering projects, this one isn’t viable and I'd rather see the money spent on more practical and required infrastructure projects such as the A5, new sewerage treatment works and building a high speed train line from Derry to Dublin.
Author: Kenneth Mitchell, BEng, HDip, MSc CEng, MIEI, is a chartered engineer in the fields of chemical and environmental engineering