Music Unite: Celebrating Culture by Jeffrey Donaldson MP

Music can unite people, cultures, traditions and communities.  This was clearly demonstrated by the remarkable ‘Music Unite’ event held at The MAC Belfast last week.

Theatre goers mixed with Loyalist bands in the heart of Belfast’s vibrant Cathedral Quarter – in a space where the diversity of culture brought people and communities together.

It was an evening of music, rhythm, culture, diversity and positivity.  The Shankill Road Defenders, Ballykeel Loyal Sons of Ulster and North Down Defenders performed together with an eclectic mix of traditional flute band music fused with Colombian, Kurdish, Ghanaian, Sri Lankan and Irish sounds. Flutes from Ulster, pipes from Colombia, drums from Ghana and Uilleann pipes came together to create powerful symphony.

The Music Unite event was the highlight of what has been an incredible and transformative project.

I grew up in a culture of bands, joining Orangefield Flute Band, Kilkeel when I was still in Primary School and over a number of years of hard practice graduating from percussion to the flute in what was one of the finest part-flute bands in County Down.  I well remember bursting with pride as I donned my band uniform for the first time and marched all the way from Ballinran Orange Hall to Kilkeel for the annual Twelfth parade. In later years I was a founding member of the Pride of Ballinran Flute Band, today one of the best melody flute bands in the country. Therefore, I know the bands scene well and recognise the invaluable contribution that marching bands make to the lives of many young people.  Those young people experience what it is like to be part of a team – to make a contribution in creating musical and human harmony and learning a sense of discipline that stands them in good stead for the challenges of a modern society.

With my interest in marching bands, I have seen at first hand the tremendous local talent that exists but is often overlooked within the music scene.  Sir James Galway developed his immense musical ability in a flute band in Belfast and there may well be other James Galway’s in the ranks of such bands across Northern Ireland.  Music Unite offers a platform for bands to display their undoubted talent to a wider audience with whom they may not normally connect and is designed to break down barriers and challenge perceptions and stereotypes that are often associated with the local band scene.  This is not about persuading people to alter their identity or to change their culture to suit others.  It is about promoting a better understanding of that culture and enabling people to engage with each other in a way that promotes greater harmony across our community.

This does not mean that we overlook the problems sometimes associated with parading and music in Northern Ireland.  Far from it.  I recognise that this is a controversial issue for some and that a minority on both sides of this debate sometimes engage in behaviour that is unacceptable.  However, the idea that the way to resolve this or to alter negative behaviour is to isolate or punish an entire musical fraternity is one that needs to be challenged.  Inclusivity must be practised and not just preached and ought not to require people to abandon their beliefs or their identity or to somehow whitewash their culture to create some kind of unrealistic neutrality.  Diversity surely implies respect for difference, although that respect has to be gained and not just taken for granted.

Last year the Centre for Democracy & Peace Building in partnership with ‘Beyond Skin’ launched the ‘Music Unite’ programme.  Our partners at Beyond Skin lead by the brilliant Darren Ferguson are to be commended for their pioneering work with this project.

This work began with the Shankill Road Defenders with the aim of using music to unify people and empowering and enabling individuals and communities.

Our innovative programme enabled Loyalist bands to meet, exchange ideas & music genres with people from other backgrounds and cultures, develop musical skills, build capacity and challenge stereotypes.

In the past year, the Shankill Road Defenders have performed in numerous events in places that would have been simply unimaginable just a few years ago.  This included playing to hundreds of people as part of the Culture Night Belfast and a performance at Belfast City Hall as part of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Secretariat’s St Patrick’s Day reception. The band also played with the North Down Defenders at the Chinese Welfare Association in Belfast earlier this year.  Cultures and communities united by music.

It’s been an incredible journey.  The bands involved in this project have demonstrated remarkable vision, energy and leadership.  They have engaged positively with this project – perfecting their musical skills and collaborating with musicians from around the world.  They have been ambassadors for the positive contribution that loyalist bands make to our musical heritage and culture in Northern Ireland.

A report highlighting the success of Music Unite by Professor John Brewer and Dr Francis Teeney from the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast has been published by the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building.  I commend the authors for endorsing the programme and note the important recommendations they have made.  This will no doubt promote further debate and discussion on the way forward.  We must continue this vital work and give further consideration to the recommendations contained within the report.  The Report is available at

Music Unite is the start of a new flow, a new rhythm that brings people together.  It challenges perceptions and stereotypes. Importantly, it provides hope that Northern Ireland is moving forward together to a new beat – one which creates a positive celebration of our unique and diverse culture and identity.


Independent documentary ‘Born and Reared’ to launch at the Lyric Theatre Belfast

‘Born and Reared’ will launch at the Lyric Theatre Belfast in April – then in London in May 2016 with 3 screenings including the House of Commons, before beginning tour and community outreach programme across the UK and Ireland.

‘Born and Reared’ is a moving documentary that explores contemporary Northern Ireland, through the lives of four men living in the aftermath of violent conflict; a story about re-imagined identity of place and the fragility of masculinity.

Contextualised by the country’s past the film is firmly rooted in the Northern Ireland of today as a population struggles to come to terms with the horrors and the sacrifices of its past and the men turn to face a future defined by their hopes, rather than regret.

Filmed over a year with the men in and around their homes, the filmmakers focused on the stories that took place long after the cameras had left the news story that was Northern Ireland. Thirty years of violence came to an end in a 1998 peace deal and the door on almost relentless media interest also closed. But the lives of those affected indirectly or otherwise by the so-called ‘Troubles’ continued…

In a society where masculinity has long been measured in violence and aggression, what happens to the identities of men when the Troubles end and the roles previously held are no longer accepted or needed? How do you go from being a soldier defending your country, to being a joiner or a taxi driver in ‘peace time’?

In this film you will meet then 16 year old Danny who was born the year of The Good Friday Agreement, he talks about how he “loves his city, but he doesn’t know if he loves his country because he doesn’t know what country he belongs too”. Danny is a positive voice for the future, but he also still carries so much of the weight on his shoulders from the legacy of his country’s past. Billy lost his father in The Troubles. He was shot whilst placing a bet in the Sean Grahams on the Ormeau Road. Billy is now a father and husband and he walks past the betting shop everyday on his way to work. Billy wants people to co-exist side by side today. He also still feels the hurt and pain that’s been left behind and isn’t sure that it’ll ever go away. Bobby is an ex-Loyalist paramilitary who served 16 years in prison. Bobby is now a born again Christian living in Bangor and working as a joiner. He is a father and a husband and he now works in the prisons he once served time in, teaching art and working with inmates. Bryan is a pigeon fancier and his pigeons provided him with an escape route from getting involved. However, he is still affected by the legacy of the past today. He talks honestly and openly about the kingmakers that still exist.

The four characters are all vulnerable and strong. Their stories are powerful, courageous, moving and contemporary.

The launch organised in partnership with the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building will take please at the Lyric Theatre Belfast on 12 April. To register please go to

Leadership Academy: Social Media and Challenges of Conflict and Prejudice

By India Fahy, Washington Ireland Program Class ’15

We have hosted the third #LeadershipAcademy last month. As you may be able to tell from my perpetual hash-tagging, the focus of the session was social media and its relevance to the challenges of conflict and prejudice. We heard from Nick Pickles, Head of Public Policy at Twitter, Enda Young, founder of Transformative Connections, and Oxford researcher Lydia Wilson.

Nick provided a fascinating insight into the concept of positive messaging and really drove home the responsibility borne by social media platforms, such as Twitter. I was inspired by some of the facts and figures presented, which demonstrate that users are standing up more and more often, challenging what they think is unacceptable content. Nick stressed that people are much more likely to have a healthy debate, conducive to productive outcomes, if they see that negative narrative challenged. That being said, Nick stressed that although social media now plays a role in conflict, with that comes immense challenges. He stressed the fact that whole teams of people are dedicated to drafting ‘responsible posting’ guidelines, and that Twitter are very aware that they have a responsibility to ensure that they respond appropriately to any irresponsible usage of their platform. The question that Twitter are facing, Nick said, is ‘how do we ensure that our platform is used to challenge the narrative, and isn’t a platform for people to promote terrorism.’ In typical Twitter fashion the presentation ended with a 21st Century ‘If you have any questions… you could always Tweet me’.

Enda Young, co-founder of Transformative Connections, gave a wonderful presentation about the use technology for peace building, or #PeaceTech. How can we effectively harness the power of social media, and technology, to harmonise conflict? How do we ‘de-jargonise’ social media so that we can effectively harness its power to harmonise conflict? How we measure the real life impact of social media will be crucial to our understanding. How do we translate tacit support i.e. a ‘like’ on Facebook into action? Social media presents an unprecedented opportunity for crowd-sourced information. Where does this data meet government focused statistical analysis?

One thing that particularly sparked my interest was the concept of fact-checking. Enda is involved in the launch of FactCheckNI, a platform designed to allow users to check the accuracy of the information they are viewing on online platforms. After the presentation we discussed the dangers of misinformation, citing recent examples such as an incident in Belfast when a Facebook user posted a photo of a flag supposedly being burnt by City Hall. This provoked a riot, despite imaging software being able to prove that the image had previously been posted years before.

Enda discussed the possibilities for the use of #PeaceTech in furthering the peace process specifically in NI. He presented a project which he is involved in, using virtual reality to engage with a community group and create a community interface, to show them what their community would look like after the interface walls came down. Through this project the offline world has met the online world; they have gathered information offline about what members of the community would like their community to look like, and have created a real life representation, complete with a 3D walk-through. Studies have shown that the use of virtual reality in such circumstances increases the level of empathy and understanding, by helping people to visualise the change and see tangible opportunities for their community.

All of the research carried out by Transformative Connection has been compiled into a concise and accessible report, which Enda presented to us, complete with a super high tech code to scan to access the report (cost-effective, and quite impressive really) – apparently ‘good old fashioned’ QR codes are now old news, who’d have thought?

Lydia Wilson, a researcher at Oxford, presented ‘The Allure of the Islamic State’. Lydia praised Twitter for its record of identifying repeat content, evidenced by the immense difficult she faced trying to track down content. She warned that it would be remiss to describe their attempts as a game of ‘whack a mole’, because contrary to public belief, Twitter is actually slowing them down. Lydia presented a number of stark examples of ISIS’ sophisticated use of technology and social media, including a version of Call of Duty. When it came to Q&A it was fascinating to hear that one of the attendees, a social worker working with youth at risk of radicalisation, had had her eyes opened by the presentation to a whole new possibility of ensuring that the children are not exposed to propaganda.

This #LeadershipAcademy provided a compelling insight into the phenomenon of social media and technological advances, coupled with their immense potential for challenging conflict and prejudice. What is also clear however, is that with this comes an increased risk of hijacking, so we must work to keep it neutral, to ensure that it fulfils its potential as a platform for free and open conversation, conducive to solving disagreements and engaging new voices.

The next Leadership Academy on 26th April 2016 will focus on Understanding and Countering Violent-Extremism. Sign up here: