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The Estate we're in now: What happened to Coleraine's Ballysally after cameras left?

As BBC NI's controversial Radio Face series continues, four years ago an unflinching fly-on-the-wall documentary about the residents of Ballysally caused a similar storm. But what happened to the area in Coleraine after the cameras went away? The outcome may surprise you, reports Ivan Little

Published 16/01/2016

Fresh image: new paintings in Ballysally have replaced a loyalist mural
Fresh image: new paintings in Ballysally have replaced a loyalist mural
Kelly-Ann Mitchell who has since left the area
A mural
Some boarded houses
Martin Laverty
Kyle Montgomery
Optimistic outlook: Rev Dr John Coulter, Minister of Ballysally Presbyterian Church

The 15 minutes of fame - or notoriety - that Ballysally gained from a BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary series four years ago gave the Coleraine estate such a bad name that even the yobs in the street still ridicule it.

"If you come from Ballysally, then you're on the DLA," was the cry I heard from football supporters as they made their way to a recent game at the Coleraine Showgrounds. And they were from the town.

But belying the old adage about giving dogs a bad name, Ballysally has somehow managed to weather the storm from The Estate series, which focused not so much on the good but rather the bad and the ugly side of life in the area.

In much the same way that viewers of Stephen Nolan's controversial Radio Face programmes are getting to know a new wave of instant 'celebrities', The Estate introduced TV audiences to a disparate and sometimes desperate collection of people trying to cope with poverty and addictions in Ballysally.

Many of the estate 'stars' have moved away from Ballysally and moved on with their lives. Alcoholic Martin Laverty is living 20 miles away and says he hasn't had a drink for the past seven months.

But he didn't want to talk in depth about his current circumstances, apart from saying that he enjoys walking his dog - another ever-present in the TV series - on beaches near his new home.

Kelly-Ann Mitchell, the teenager who hated school and loved make-up in almost equal measure, went to live in Garvagh and on her Facebook account she said she had a baby son, although the page hasn't been updated for a few months.

Not long after the eight-part series went on air, Kelly-Ann said she regretted her participation in The Estate, telling me: "If I could turn the clock back, I wouldn't do it. I would tell them to take a running jump. I've had a lot of grief, especially at the start when it really was over the top." The spectre of the Estate followed Kelly-Ann to Garvagh. One resident says: "She turned heads when she first came here. Everyone knew who she was. But she was really sweet, a real character and she used to give the girls in the local chemist's shop make-up tips. After a while, people got used to her."

Kyle Montgomery, who once admitted having a £300 a week cocaine habit and said he'd tried to kill himself, hit the headlines again last year after he appeared in court charged with criminal damage. Another troubled soul featured in The Estate, Gary Ferris, who battled alcoholism, died before the documentary series was transmitted. His body was pulled from the River Bann in July 2011 and his family went public afterwards to insist that no alcohol was found in his system.

The support worker who helped people in Ballysally with alcohol problems was made redundant and later Emma Kennedy was trolled on the internet after photographs appeared on social media showing her selling drink at a nightclub, failing to mention that the picture was taken years earlier, when she was a student trying to finance her studies by working in the club.

A relative of another person featured in The Estate, but who didn't want to be identified, said their life had been made a misery after they agreed to take part in the programme - which was panned by some critics but which also attracted huge numbers of viewers.

"I reckon some of the folk on Radio Face will some day say they wished they hadn't bothered showing their faces on the TV either," says the relative.

Another source in Ballysally says: "A lot of people's lives became nightmares for years after the TV show. They got stick wherever they went and had even more difficulty getting work than usual."

Local Presbyterian minister the Rev John Coulter says: "Most of the people in The Estate continue to struggle as a result of their involvement with the series and maybe attracted attention that wasn't helpful in their own lives.

"Obviously, if you are following someone around, filming them and talking to them over a long period of time, it's in the power of the editor to show what they want to show. And I don't think that many of the subjects would have been very positive afterwards and felt that they hadn't been treated fairly."

But the general consensus in the estate four years after the programme is that the place is now more Ballysavvy than Ballyscally.

And the evidence isn't just anecdotal. Indeed, a return to the sprawling estate - one of the biggest in Northern Ireland with nearly 3,000 residents - confirms that times are indeed changing.

Fifteen bricked-up houses which were shown ad nauseum in The Estate have been refurbished for new residents and not far away a massive UVF mural, a throwback to the loyalist paramilitaries' influence on Ballysally during the Troubles, has gone.

It has been replaced, after consultation with a Protestant Unionist forum, by a heritage mural showing major figures associated with Protestant identity and history over the last 200 years - like Martin Luther and King William III.

Not far away, an eight and a half acre swathe of waste-ground called the Cornfield is about to be turned into a nature zone, with flower gardens and allotments which are set to provide fruit and vegetables on a commercial basis to a local healthy eating cafe run by a community association called Building Ballysally Together.

The Cornfield project won a public vote to become the Grow Wild flagship site for Northern Ireland and will receive £120,000 funding to develop the site in association with the neighbouring Millburn housing estate.

One of the driving forces behind the Cornfield was Brendan Patterson of Ballysally's Focus on Family group, who have turned a row of five houses into a bustling base for child care, domestic abuse support, IT courses, therapeutic work and lots more besides.

"We hope the Cornfield will also bring outsiders into Ballysally and see that their misconceptions are wrong that everyone here is on benefits and has addiction problems - misconceptions that were reinforced by the TV series," says Mr Patterson.

But neither he nor anyone else is trying to suggest that everything in Ballysally's garden is rosy.

Mr Coulter, who has been a minister in Ballysally for 19 years, says: "This is still an area of high social deprivation and it's in the top 10% in Northern Ireland, with twice the number of people unemployed here compared to the province's average. And nearly 70% of the children at the local primary school are on free school dinners."

Local Assemblyman Adrian McQuillan says: "Yes, we do still have our problems of unemployment and poverty. But Ballysally isn't on its own in that. You would find the same issues in any estate in Northern Ireland, but Ballysally has definitely turned a corner."

And Mr McQuillan believes that in an odd roundabout way The Estate series may have been the catalyst that Ballysally needed.

He says: "The Estate showed the worst side of Ballysally, but I think it's come out the other side of that stronger than ever. I think the programme galvanised the whole community and brought them closer together, plus it also highlighted some of the problems in Ballysally that people in authority were choosing to ignore or didn't know anything about."

DUP councillor George Duddy says the community spirit in the area is now unrecognisable from years gone by, with a raft of organisations, including the churches coming together in a partnership called the Ballysally Integrated Nurturing Programme (BINP) to transform the estate and improve its image.

He adds: "One of the most significant indicators of the change is that there's now a waiting list to get a house in Ballysally. In the old days, people were moved here from problem areas in other parts of the province and couldn't wait to get out again from what in some ways was a transit camp."

Mr Coulter, who's originally from east Belfast, says a lot of good work had been going on quietly behind the scenes in Ballysally long before the TV series went out.

He adds: "The fact that the estate was designated a neighbourhood renewal area was a big help, with additional funding being pumped in which assisted a number of community organisations and resident groups, which are co-operating more actively than they ever did before."

Ballysally today is chalk and cheese compared to the Ballysally that Mr Coulter knew back in the day.

"I've seen fantastic advances" he says. "There was a hopelessness in the estate when I came here. There were always vacant houses and blocked-up houses and there were social problems, too.

"In the local papers the reports would have been all about who was being jailed for this that, or the other thing in Ballysally, where there were also a number of high profile murders and feuds.

"There wasn't initially a big momentum for change, but a lot of people did want to make a difference and the Peace Two initiative in 2003 brought some money in and things started to go in the right direction."

Youth worker Joanne Reid from Tyrone took her job at Ballysally after seeing The Estate on the TV, but she wasn't scared off. "It gave me a completely wrong impression of the place, but I now live on the estate and it's actually a superb place to be," she says.

Irene Peden, who works with senior citizens and young people in Ballysally, has seen remarkable changes in the estate since she moved to live there in 1975.

"Ballysally is definitely on the up. It's a whole new world from years ago. It's a lot friendlier, too."

Down the years the local primary and nursery schools have also played pivotal roles in improving life on Ballysally.

Ballysally Primary's headmaster Geoff Dunn, who was recently awarded an MBE for his work, says his school, which has the motto "Learning through Nurturing" was now a hub for the community as well as for his pupils.

"We want families to feel that we are here to support them and that has broken down many barriers that sometimes exist between parents and a school."

The levels of under-achievement have been going down, to such an extent that parents from outside Ballysally are trying to enrol their children in the school, which is examining the possibility of introducing a new class next year.

"We are now over-subscribed in our primary one intake and that hasn't happened before in the 16 years that I have been here," says Mr Dunn.

"It's a great problem, to have people voting with their feet to come to this school. And to Ballysally."

Belfast Telegraph

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