Talking to a broad-minded sporting unionist who defies all the southern stereotypes…

Brian Dougherty is a unionist. This Derry community worker says he is more determined in his unionism than he has ever been. Yet in every other way he goes against the narrow stereotype that most people in the South have of unionists: he is a socialist who is hugely committed to his working class community; open to and interested in Irish music and culture; in favour of cross-cultural legislation including promotion of the Irish language; a board member of an all-Ireland sporting body; and a regular participant in meetings to discuss north-south cooperation and the prospects (and perils) of Irish unity.

Dougherty is a small farmer’s son from Creevedonnell, a few miles outside Derry’s Waterside. He comes from a strong unionist background. His father was in the B-Specials, his brothers in the UDR, his great-uncles members of Rev. Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church and his grandfathers Orangemen (one had donated the land for the local Orange Hall). He doesn’t deny that they were hard-line and sectarian in their attitudes, rejoicing in the successes of the security forces and the killing of IRA men, and indifferent to the fate of those who died on Bloody Sunday.

He was a bright boy, and passed the 11-plus exam, meaning he could go to the local state (i.e. 98% Protestant) grammar school, Foyle College. There, although he was all too conscious that he was a working class boy in a largely middle class environment, he did well, partly because he was good at rugby and cricket. But also because he felt that education was his way to get out of Derry: “I couldn’t wait to leave. I thought it was the biggest and most hostile shithole in Northern Ireland.”

His experience as a Protestant from the Waterside going to school on Derry’s overwhelmingly nationalist city side in the 1980s had been a hair-raising one. “Wearing Foyle College’s maroon uniform and cap you might as well have been wearing a union flag. Our buses were regularly stoned. I was physically attacked twice. My sister got beaten up by four girls at one point. All that was really frightening for an 11-year-old.”

Those early experiences shaped much of this thinking. “I went from being proud of my British identity and feeling I was part of a great country, to something a bit more sinister: a feeling we were under attack here, and had to do what we needed to survive. Here we were again in the 1980s under attack and my brothers and uncles were joining the security forces. There was always a sense that there was something to defend. And someone trying to strip away your identity only meant it became more important.”

He ended up at Manchester University doing a master’s degree in town planning. But then he came home again. In the early 1990s he returned to Derry, first to work for the Housing Executive and a few years later to move to become a community worker in Tullyally in the Waterside, a poor Protestant working class area not far from his home. “If there was ever a community that was completely marginalised and isolated with huge levels of deprivation – worse than anywhere in the city but not being recognised – it was Tullyally. There were few facilities, no social interaction apart from a bar and a football club – it was a community turned in on itself. Young people were falling into the trap of paramilitary activity.”

He was the first Protestant community development worker in Derry. Working class Protestants there hadn’t “grasped the concept of self-help”, he says, believing that “as good British citizens who paid their taxes, the government would provide their play parks and social facilities.” In Tullyally he and the local group were successful relatively quickly in building a play park, a youth club and a community centre and forming a public-private partnership to build small business units.

He learned a lot from community workers in the city’s nationalist areas, Creggan and the Bogside, who had adopted the community development self-help ethos 25 years earlier and were very open to sharing their largely successful experience with their Protestant counterparts in the Waterside. “There was a huge sense of generosity from nationalists in the community sector,” says Dougherty. “There’s almost a sense that the community sector resolves the problems and then the politicians use this to their advantage.” He says local unionist politicians in recent years had realised belatedly that “there was merit in engaging with the community sector. When I started in the mid-nineties, you couldn’t have got a unionist politician to engage for love nor money. We were all socialists and communists and a threat to their power base.”

On the other hand he feels the broader nationalist community in Derry, and their politicians – whether Sinn Fein or the SDLP – were “blind and deaf to the concerns of the largely invisible unionist community.” It had become invisible because during the ‘Troubles’ more than 95% of Protestants living on the city side, intimidated by the IRA’s constant bombing of the city centre and by living among an overwhelming majority of nationalists, had moved in their thousands across the Foyle to the Waterside, the poorer among them to peripheral estates on the city’s eastern outskirts. He admits, however, that the city council – “quite pro-active in wanting to show equality” – had provided funding and resources for the Tullyally project.

Around 2005 he was involved with a piece of research on Derry’s deprived Protestant communities with Queen’s University Belfast and University of Ulster, led by the sociologist Peter Shirlow. Out of this came the perhaps surprising idea that one way to combat the marginalisation and low morale of working class Derry Protestants, and to help them get their voices heard, was through the city’s 14 loyalist marching bands. Nobody had ever thought of this before, largely because “the broad assumption was that the bands were a bad thing, they were sectarian, breeding grounds for paramilitary activity – they were the problem, not the solution. If you drive past a bus stop in Derry and see a young person from a Catholic school with a bodhrán, they’re viewed as a musician. If it’s a young Protestant in a band uniform, they’re viewed as a bigot. But their musical skills are comparable,” says Dougherty.

It became quickly obvious to him that “the band leader was the key community figure in each of these areas; far more influential than the community worker or youth worker”. He and a small group of colleagues set up the Londonderry Bands Forum. “Bands are rehearsing and engaging in creative activity for 52 weeks a year. We felt that if we could work with these young people – and with adults like influential band leaders – we could open many doors for so much else in terms of working to improve social conditions in these areas. Because we saw how being in a band improves the confidence levels and self-esteem of young people. A lot of the young people in bands are low academic achievers, but have skills in music. The challenge is how you use that vehicle as an opportunity to help them improve themselves.”

The Bands Forum has certainly broadened many of those young people’s outlooks. In 2013 the all-Ireland traditional music organisation Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann told the Culturlann Centre in Derry that if they wanted the big annual Fleadh Cheoil to come to Derry (and Northern Ireland) for the first time, they would have to show cross-community inclusivity. After failing to get a couple of Waterside community groups interested, Culturlann contacted the Londonderry Bands Forum. “We were approached to get these young people who had been rioting during the flags protest to play at a major Irish traditional music festival. Their first reaction was ‘get the hell out of here’. But we talked it through and asked them: ‘What is it you want as band members? What is your ideal scenario?’ And they said: ‘To get respect in our city again and be able to march the traditional route we used to have prior to the Troubles’. And I said that this was an opportunity to do that, because ‘the genuine and generous people in Comhaltas are saying: this is about music, not politics.”

So five of the bands played at gigs across the city and at the closing ceremony Deputy First Minister (and former IRA leader) Martin McGuinness talked about “the bands’ generosity and that the nationalist citizens of Derry should be reciprocating that generosity to the Apprentice Boys.”

“Also in August 2013 we had the UK City of Culture coming to Derry, and that was genuinely inclusive. The cloud of Bloody Sunday had lifted with the Saville Report and the Peace Bridge had been built around the same time. So not only was there the musical collaboration of the bands at the fleadh, but young people were coming together in concerts to hear the likes of Coldplay, thousands of them mixing and socialising in bars where they wouldn’t have socialised before.” A highlight of UK City of Culture was the dramatic Walled City Tattoo, a cross-community celebration of Scottish highland and Irish musical cultures with singers, dancers and massed ranks of drummers.

And then came Brexit and everything went backwards. “There was the anti-British narrative that evolved out of Brexit – the sense that all forms of unionism should be boxed as right-wing little Englanders, despite the fact that many of us were ‘remainers’. All of a sudden your identity and sovereignty were back in the public domain and you felt you had to kind of re-establish it. All of a sudden kerbstones started to be repainted and bonfires got bigger. Unionists felt under attack again from multiple sources: from academics, social media, the commentariat. All strands of unionism were persistently demonised.” There was also the funeral of Belfast IRA leader Bobby Storey in the middle of the Covid pandemic, and the suspicion in many Protestant minds that there was a new system of ‘two-tiered policing’ that wasn’t to their advantage.

Dougherty feels much of the generosity of the 2013 period has gone now. “In the Fleadh Cheoil both unionist and nationalist culture could be promoted and celebrated. Now we’ve gone back to unionist culture veering between being tolerated and accepted.” He shocked one prominent Derry nationalist recently by suggesting it might be time to forget about a toxic past that saw a 1969 Apprentice Boys march becoming the spark that lit the ‘Troubles’ in Derry and to put a message up on the famous wall at Free Derry Corner in the Bogside: ‘Derry Welcomes the Apprentice Boys.’ “The blood just drained from his face. His reaction showed how far we are from proper inclusivity in this city.” The Apprentice Boys are now allowed to march around the city’s walls again, but Dougherty says “you don’t have to scratch too far under the surface to see the language of ‘these people know where they are – this is a nationalist city.”

He worries that this augurs badly for a possible united Ireland, where Protestants – as they are in Derry – would be a small proportion of the population. Asked whether his experience of being a member of the Protestant minority in nationalist Derry had persuaded him that he could live in a nationalist-ruled united Ireland, he replies: “It’s done the opposite.” He points to things like Derry Council not supporting or providing funding for any celebration of the centenary of Northern Ireland and not joining other councils in issuing a declaration of regret after Queen Elizabeth II’s death. “In fact there were cavalcades driving around Derry, including past my house, celebrating her death. The fans at Derry City were singing ‘Lizzie’s in a box.’

On the other hand he is more optimistic about people in the South learning to accept, promote and even celebrate unionist culture. He points to a collaboration last December when another mainly Protestant organisation he heads, the North West Cultural Partnership, came together with the celebrated Donegal fiddler and singer Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and her band to put on an act to highlight Irish and Northern Irish/Scottish traditional music and dance at a Shared Island event in Dublin Castle. He hopes one day to bring his Derry loyalist bands to march in the St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin, and to put on a Dublin City Tattoo mass drumming event in Collins Barracks. “I’d look forward to the day when we’d have loyalist bands accepted in Dublin as normal – and because Ireland is becoming so diverse, they might be part of a kind of Dublin-style Notting Hill Carnival.”

“I think if there was a referendum [on unity], there is a recognition in the South that this is not an overnight thing, it’s a generational discussion. My experience of speaking to people in the South is that they listen. Up here, when we’re on a panel, nationalists lose interest because what we say is not what they want to hear. In the South any panels we’ve been on, there has been a genuine interest – because they want to know what the implications are and what the consequences will be of Irish unity. And I would hope that anything that is dear to a British citizen or somebody who feels British in Northern Ireland would be respected in a united Ireland. That’s under current structures. Whether that shifts under Sinn Fein remains to be seen.” He worries about “payback and discrimination and cultural erosion and lack of respect” for unionists in a united Ireland. And he wishes that moderate voices like those of John Hume, Mark Durkan and Micheál Martin (“I have a lot of respect for Micheál Martin”) were the ones leading the debates about unity.

He has reassuring words for unionist young people: “I say to them, it’s OK to be unionist. You can be progressive, you can be socialist, you can still try to improve the quality of your community and your environment. Because other people have characterised unionism as something bad, that doesn’t mean it is.”

However Dougherty prefers to talk about community development, cultural exchange, music and sport than politics. He remains a keen cricketer, representing the north-west (clubs in Derry and Donegal) on the board of Cricket Ireland. “My other great love is the Northern Ireland football team – I’m not quite sure where that would fit into a united Ireland.”


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