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Ex-Northern Ireland broadcaster Gillian Ievers on exciting project which kept her in Oz after break-up

Gillian Ievers from Bangor talks about life in sunny Brisbane, what she misses most about back home and her fascinating career path

Former NI broadcaster Gillian Ievers
Former NI broadcaster Gillian Ievers
Gillian Ievers with her daughter Jessie
Foreign correspondent Peter Greste after his release from jail in Egypt
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

A former UTV and BBC broadcaster who emigrated to Australia 11 years ago is making the news herself down under, working on a ground-breaking environmental project with one of the world's most respected journalists who was at the centre of global headlines in 2013 when he was arrested on terrorism charges in Egypt.

And Gillian Ievers from Bangor says her 'exciting and rewarding' collaboration with Peter Greste is one of the reasons why she's glad she resisted the temptation to return home to Northern Ireland after the breakdown of her marriage a few years ago.

Australian Greste is an award-winning foreign correspondent who for 25 years reported for the BBC, Reuters and Al Jazeera from the frontlines in hotspots like Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa.

Six years ago he and two colleagues from Al Jazeera were arrested in Cairo and charged with threatening the national security of Egypt.

In letters smuggled from prison, Greste, who was locked up in solitary confinement for a time, said the arrests were an attack on press freedom and a global campaign eventually got him and his colleagues released after over 400 days behind bars.

Greste was deported and he later started work as the UNESCO chair of journalism at the University of Queensland's school of communication which is where his and Gillian's paths crossed.

But Gillian had almost given up on life in Australia. She says that after the collapse of her marriage to her husband Derek she didn't know how she would cope and her first instinct was to fly back home. "I dragged myself on to a plane back to Belfast and it was the best thing I ever did. My family scooped me up and gave me the strength to just put one foot in front of the other," she says, adding that on her return to Brisbane her friends rallied around too.

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"In the midst of the madness and the chaos, I realised I'd found my place here in Australia," says Gillian, who had almost quit the country three years before she and Derek split.

The couple had been having their doubts about their new life and the novelty was wearing off.

Gillian explains: "Moving to the other side of the world is hard. I think if you do it when you're young you build your life there, but to transport your life to a city where you know no one is very tough.

"The first few years had been an adventure; we really were like tourists on an extended holiday."

Family members visited regularly and Christmases were spent on the beach, but Gillian adds: "While it was idyllic it just felt wrong to me. I was terribly homesick and no matter how long I live here, I will never get used to Christmas in the heat."

Gillian and her husband put their home on the market but it didn't sell and they stayed in Australia though they were to part.

But for Gillian the past is very definitely the past.

She and Peter Greste are now working together on a huge environmental project with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to develop a programme 'to take the issue of mining out of the contentious political arena'.

Gillian says: "Mining is a big issue here and can be very emotive. What we are focusing on is developing sustainable ways to mine that don't negatively impact society or the environment."

"We hope to unpack the issues and discuss what is working, what is not, and what the future might possibly look like. It's early days but the aim is for the panellists to be academic experts as well as key figures from civil society."

The work in Australia is all a far cry from the life that Gillian imagined she would lead.

In her teens Gillian wanted to enrol in a drama school in England but she was persuaded by her father Walter to get a degree that she could fall back on if things went awry.

She says: "I ended up at Stranmillis College doing English and drama, which I hated. I mucked around for a few years doing a bit of teaching, a postgrad in directing, a lot of waitressing and very little acting or directing."

Gillian then got a major break, landing a job on the BBC NI children's TV show Over the Wall which also featured a young Ant and Dec.

Her next stop was UTV where Gillian joined the ranks of continuity announcers like Julian Simmons and Pamela Ballantine.

But Gillian really wanted to report on the news rather just read it and she did some journalism training before starting to work for the Sunday World newspaper in Belfast.

Gillian returned to Havelock House with a series called the Family Show and after her son Dylan was born she worked as a freelance journalist until she went back to the Beeb where she says it took her time to find her feet in news and current affairs.

"I loved working on radio. I definitely never found my rhythm in television and there was so much variety rotating through Evening Extra and Good Morning Ulster. It was a great experience and I was really sorry to leave," she says.

But leave she did. And Australia was her next port of call.

She says: "My ex-husband was Australian by descent so it was always an option for us. He spent a lot of time working away and I was working shifts, the kids Dylan and Jessie were getting older and we thought Australia might offer us a better quality of life."

They initially planned to live in either Sydney or Melbourne but after a three-day visit to Brisbane they fell in love with the city and decided that was the place to be.

Gillian tried unsuccessfully to get a job in radio and went instead into marketing at the University of Queensland where she initially got a part-time job covering for an employee on maternity leave.

"Ten years later I am still there," says Gillian. "I've had many different jobs in the university and last year I got the role of Communications and Engagement Manager in the Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI) which is one of five research institutes in the university. I love it, it's full-on, it's been a steep learning curve, and it's very challenging."

Gillian and her two colleagues on her team have been tasked with raising the profile of the SMI on social media and through press releases, marketing initiatives, videos and podcasts.

As for Peter Greste, Gillian says that ever since his Egyptian ordeal finished, the journalist whom she says is "quietly spoken, very considered and highly intelligent" has been a tireless advocate of press and media freedom.

His book, The First Casualty, is his account of how the war on journalism has become the new battleground, spreading from the Middle East to governments of the West including Putin's Russia and Trump's America where the President has engaged in what he calls his "phony war on fake news".

Gillian meanwhile says that, though she is happy that she didn't quit Australia, she misses her family and friends back home, and she insists: "I can't see a time when I would ever go back now. The Brisbane life suits me perfectly.

"I love the fact that we really live most of our life outside. Brisbane is a really beautiful city and I enjoy what it offers, it's not as big as Melbourne or Sydney and it still has a chilled out vibe to it. On the negative side, Australia is a very expensive country to live in."

Gillian returned home recently to Bangor to visit her family who are steeped in the theatre in the town.

She says she misses her mother Lillian's cooking as well as potato bread, soda bread and pork sausages, but what made returning to Australia after her Ulster sojourn particularly difficult was an illness in the family.

"I am so far away and there is not much I can do to help but sometimes I wish Australia was just a little closer to the rest of the world," she says, though social media has helped bridge the miles.

Gillian has also discovered that it's a small world in other ways too.

On one occasion when she was collecting her son Dylan from school a woman at the gates introduced herself as a Cregagh Road exile who used to live across the road from Gillian's aunt and went to school with a cousin.

Gillian says she spends the little free time that has doing yoga, walking the dog, cooking and meeting up with friends.

One disappointment, however, has been that she hasn't been able to indulge her passion for drama in Australia. She says: "I do miss it and am very envious when I am home and go to see something that my brother is involved in. I get my fix here by going to the theatre as often as I can."

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