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Band of brothers who are the best of friends

Una Brankin talks to some of Northern Ireland's famous faces about the special relationships with their male kin

By Una Brankin

Jeffrey Donaldson (54) is the DUP MP for Lagan Valley. He lives in Dromore with his wife, Eleanor and their daughters Claire (27) and Laura (23). He says:

"There were eight of us growing up and I'm the oldest - Kingsley is number six and he's 10 years younger than me. There were five boys and three girls in our family so we have three other brothers.

These days Kingsley is a recently retired lieutenant colonel in the British Army having served in Iraq with the Royal Tank Regiment. He was one of the youngest lieutenant colonels in the British Army and he's still a reservist today.

Kingsley read Irish history at Queen's and after that we both worked in financial services - that was before I had been elected as MP. He was in the Army reserve then but he decided to leave his job and pursue a career as a soldier.

We both share an interest in military history. Since he was a child Kingsley collected military memorabilia and artefacts, things like a tin helmet from the First World War, a gas mask and belts. My interest was always politics.

We, of course, did normal childhood things though. It was so much fun growing up in the Mournes as part of a large family. We spent our summers at Ballymartin beach near Kilkeel or building tree huts beside the Kilkeel River near where we lived. We did a lot of hill walking with our father in the Mournes and both Kingsley and I were in the Boys' Brigade.

Of course Kingsley spent a long time travelling with the army but our paths converged again about five years ago.

Kingsley was appointed strategic advisor to the head of the army and at the same time I was a member of the Defence Select Committee in the House of Commons. We were both based in Whitehall - he was at the Ministry of Defence and I was in Parliament.

We hadn't been able to keep in close contact for years - sometimes Kingsley's job would have had taken him out of contact for weeks on end so it was nice to be able to reconnect in London.

We even both had roles in the World War One centenary in Northern Ireland - I was chairman and Kingsley was the secretary of the organising committee."

Kingsley Donaldson (44), lives in Belfast with his partner Helen and their newborn daughter Charlotte. He has two sons from a previous relationship, Tristan (13) and Oscar (11). He now runs the Causeway Institute. He says:

"People often ask if Jeffrey and I are twins but of course we're not. Jeffrey was a very easy brother to look up to because he wasn't in your face and didn't lay down the law.

We went out to work in our house from a very young age - we would snare rabbits, pick berries, help in the garden. Jeffrey went up to Belfast and started working in Supermac when he was 16 so I would go with my dad to see him. It was very exciting to me to see the stuff he was involved in. He became a Mod and got into The Jam and so on. I was only on the fringe of that fad. He used to build model airplanes and I coveted those above all else and really wanted to get my hands on them. He had them stuck to the ceiling and I would throw pillows from the bed trying to knock them down.

We kept in touch throughout the time I was in the Army because Jeffrey was sitting in Westminster sending people to war - we've had chats about that at family gatherings. I only really got home once every 18 months so we didn't get to see one another very often.

I'm very proud of what Jeffrey has achieved. I've had the luxury of seeing him on a much larger stage than most people. I was there when he made his maiden speech in Westminster and I've seen him working in the Defence Committee and with Prime Ministers. I've noted his work as a trade envoy in far-flung places. For me the work he does in Northern Ireland is only a small part of what he does.

We think very similarly and tend to see the same opportunities at the same time. We could see the benefit of the WWI commemorations across the island. It was about remembering those soldiers but it was also a political opportunity for healing and reconciliation. Most people don't see the same Jeffrey that I see.

Jeffrey and I now see more of each other in airport lounges or in eastern Europe where our work can take us.

'My brother Stephen is really on the ball'

Gemma Garrett (34) is a former Miss Great Britain and now works as a model and make-up artist. She says:

“My brother Stephen is the baby of the family — he’s 29. We also have an older sister Lisa so I’m right in the middle.

Stephen is a footballer — he plays for Cliftonville and also works for the IFA so just about every aspect of his life is immersed in football. He got married in June and me, my mum and sister have said we couldn’t choose a better partner for him if we had done it ourselves as Stephanie, his wife, is just amazing.

Compared to me Stephen is quietly confident. He’s a very private person — my sister is too. He loves what I do and is a great support. Stephen is very intelligent and great fun. Stephen and I have a great bond and Lisa and Stephen are also very close.

Football has always been big in my family. My dad coached players and he was a scout for Arsenal. Even I played football when I was a kid. Dad knew early on that Stephen had talent and always pushed him on. He played for Linfield and for the Northern Ireland under 21 team.

I think Stephen is proud of me. I know he was very proud when I won Miss Great Britain. He might be younger than me but he’s very wise and I would always heed his advice. He doesn’t give it freely so when he does give his opinion it’s worth taking on board.”

I had no idea that Aarone was gay'

Marcus Hunter Neill (32) is a radio broadcaster and is best-known as his drag alter-ego Lady Portia Diamante. He lives in Belfast and says:

“Aarone is three years older than me — we were also born in the same month so we had a joint 18th and 21st birthday party. We also have a sister, Catherine, who is the oldest with five years between her and me.

Aarone and I got on really well when we were younger — his friends were my friends and he always seemed to have a lot of time for me. He really was the middle child — Catherine and I fought all the time but neither of us would fight with Aarone. He would find himself having to be the peacemaker as he was caught in the middle.

I think because I was the youngest and quite little that Aarone saw me as some kind of toy. He would wrap me up in bedsheets and fling me round the room. He would spin me and bash me off the sofa and then spin me and bash me off the door. I couldn’t stop him because I was laughing so hard.

On Sundays he would make me a surprise breakfast. The breakfast Weetabix covered in sugar and the surprise was there was more sugar than Weetabix. We would be bouncing off the walls afterwards from the sugar rush.

Aarone now lives in Sydney but he’s been travelling the world since he was 19. First of all he spent six months in Denmark training before he went to Africa to do aid work. He had been a chef in the Bryansburn Inn and then the Priory Inn in Holywood. My dad knew there was a bit more to him and suggested he join the aid programme.

Afterwards he went on a tour of American colleges to recruit people to go and do aid work in Africa. Later he went to New Zealand for a year before he came home and he and I lived together for four years.

I renovated houses and sold them on and Aarone helped out. We had a bit of a party house so ours was the place where people came for drinks before heading out for the night and they would come back to stay afterwards. The next morning Aarone would get up and make food and it was more likely to be a gourmet meal than sandwiches.

Although he’s older than me Aarone came out as gay after I did. It took him a long time to come to terms with it. Because there was already a gay son in the family he felt like he couldn’t be gay. He was supposed to bring home a girl and start a family. None of us really cared — he was the one who had issues with it.

The way he revealed being gay was rather strange. I had been on the talk show Trisha for a bit of a laugh and just after it had aired they said I could go back on as they were doing a show about brothers being gay. I said this to Aarone as a joke and he then told me that he was gay. This came out of the blue. I had no idea.

He and I are polar opposites — he’s dark-haired and broad and manly and likes working with power tools and that sort of thing. I’m blonde haired and blue eyed and all-singing all-dancing. But once he told me it was all fine. I thought it was great — it was one of those things that made life even better. We were able to go out together much more.

When Aarone left I was heartbroken, I knew that he wouldn’t come home to live here full time again. He had lived in Canada for five years and that was great – you could go there for a week or 10 days for £500 and the jet-lag wouldn’t kill you.

Australia costs double that and you need to go for about three weeks because it takes so long to get there. I’m self-employed so if I don’t work I don’t get paid so it’s very expensive for me to go out there.

Aarone has a coffee shop in Sydney where he also serves fresh, home-made food.

A lot of Australian food is pre-packaged and frozen so what he serves is going down a treat.

He lives there with his partner David.

Aarone has always been the peacemaker. He’s very kind and I think his humanity is at the very core of his being.

He can be serious when needs to but he’s also really good fun.”

We were born into a two-bedroomed council house with a handicapped brother - eight children there as well as mum and dad. I used to lie on empty potato sacks in the back yard watching the vapour trails of jets on cold October mornings. I vowed that one day I would travel like that and now I use aeroplanes like buses."

“I was ringleader in our mischief”

Pamela Ballantine (57) is a TV and radio presenter. She says:

"I have a brother and a sister. Peter is 17 months older than me and Suzie is younger so I'm the middle child.

When we were younger apparently I was the ringleader in whatever mischief we got up to. The three of us always mucked around together. Growing up I was a real tomboy so Pete and I went around together, his mates were my mates. I played football and cricket with them and we made dens and played cowboys and Indians. By the time he went to boarding school we had grown out of that.

When he came home we were still friends and went to parties together. Again his mates became my mates. The Troubles had started by then so your friends were very close friends - there was nothing else to do but hang out at each other's houses.

Peter went to boarding school at the age of 13, then to university and afterwards he joined the Navy. He was always very artistic and was a very good wordsmith. He never really lived in Northern Ireland though and Hong Kong was always somewhere he had wanted to go. A friend of his moved there before he did and took Peter's CV out with him and it all snowballed from there.

He's married to a woman called Angela from Carryduff but their four kids were all born in Hong Kong. All of the kids came back to the UK for their education.

Pete moved to Hong Kong about 30 years ago but we're still in contact. They still have a house here and come home at least once a year.

Peter is a media trainer with a business. He used to read the news for ITN and Cathay Pacific. There was one rather strange night where I read the UTV news, my sister came up doing CrimeCall afterwards and my brother read the ITN news - we all had different surnames so only friends and family would have noticed.

It has been exciting having a brother to visit in Hong Kong although I haven't been there for years. I went over with the Kelly Show as a surprise for him. The show was visiting expats and during the interview he told Gerry that the first thing he would say to mum was to put the pan on when he came home. A moment later I appeared in the corner of the studio with a pan of bacon and eggs. It was lovely to have the two of us together on the one show.

We're still close and he tries to come home a couple of times a year. Hong Kong gets really humid and stuffy in the summer so Angela comes home for a couple of months and Peter tries to join her for at least a couple of weeks."

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