Brer Rabbit... all grown up

Published Thursday, 29 March 2012
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Last week we explored the books that make Conall McDevitt tick, this week enters Jeffrey Donaldson, MP and DUP MLA representing Lagan Valley. I bet that most of you think: what a leap! Not so...

Jeffrey and Conall could have swapped their Brer Rabbit books as children: who would have guessed that Enid Blyton would be such an influence up on the Hill? I have a feeling that we have not seen the last of rabbit-story reading politicians. But I digress.

Jeffrey Donaldson grew up "in the Kingdom of Mourne, just outside the fishing port of Kilkeel in a townland nestling beneath the majestic Mourne mountains."

Books constantly exchanged hands in the Donaldson family. Adventure stories were read, shared, and 'lived' by Jeffrey and his seven siblings: a makeshift hut built around the family home served as the perfect setting to re-enact their favourite scenes.

Jeffrey's parents encouraged him to read and his grandmother, an avid reader herself, instilled in him the love of the Bible which she knew "inside out". Following in his granny's footsteps, Jeffrey feels that "no other book... offers better guidance for life than the most popular book in the world."

From childhood stories, Jeffrey moved on to historical fiction, spanning centuries and continents. His reads take him all the way back to the Crusades, 17th century exploration of Africa and the Great War. Military history books feature prominently on his shelf, especially those focusing on the role of the Irish Regiments and the 36th Ulster Division.

From his various historical reads, Jeffrey has singled one out as his favourite: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. "It gives a fascinating insight into life in the trenches of the First World War and the tragedy of so many young lives destroyed. I also love war poetry and this book rhymes so well with the very powerful prose of the Great War."

One book in particular has influenced his political career more than any other: Lost Lives, The Stories of the Men, Women and Children who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles. David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea have joined forces to achieve the colossal task of chronicling the death of every single victim of the Troubles and have made this book essential for anyone who is interested in the history of Northern Ireland.

All casualties are remembered; each victim's story is thoroughly documented and interviews bring emotional and human substance to the text. A death should never be a cold statistic. The book sketches individual portraits for the reader to develop empathy and gain knowledge. And suddenly, faceless entities revert back to multi-dimensional human beings, never to be forgotten.

I'm drawn to believe that the singling out of this book relates directly to the traumatic memory of Jeffrey's cousin Samuel Donaldson, the first policeman to be killed during the Troubles. Samuel's death ended the Brer Rabbit and other adventure fantasies and plunged Jeffrey into the 'troubled' world of Northern Irish politics.

Jeffrey picks up Lost Lives regularly: "So often I take the book from my shelf and open it randomly and begin to read the record of so many lives needlessly cut short because of our inability to agree how to live together in peace. This book is a powerful reminder to me of why it is so important to recognise the suffering of the victims and to build a better future in Northern Ireland which ensures we resolve our differences through dialogue and agreement and not through violence and murder."

Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP reads his book of the week

Picked from the same literary 'family', this week Jeffrey is reading The Black Banners by Ali Soufan, "a former FBI Special Agent who gives a powerful insight into 9/11, Al Qaeda and the American response to this international terrorist organisation.

The book shows us not only how terrorists think and operate but also how they can be beaten and brought to justice. I have met Ali a couple of times and his take on these important issues is highly insightful. This book, although redacted in parts due to secrecy restrictions, is a compelling read for those of us involved in countering terrorism and extremism."

Jeffrey sums up the book in his chosen quote: "To ever fully defeat Al Qaeda, or the subsequent new groups that emerge, we need to realise that military operations, interrogations and intelligence successes are only half the battle. The other half is in the arena of ideas - countering the narratives and recruitment methods that extremists use. We can keep killing and arresting terrorists, but if new ones keep joining, our war will never end".

History, war, well... history of war books are prominent on Jeffrey's bookshelf, here and there neighbouring a collection of poems. One thing though: even if his book list is varied and extensive, don't expect to find any political biographies stored on his iPad. Oh no no no... He's seen it, done it and is still wearing that particular T-shirt!

One thing that struck me when discovering Jeffrey's reading habits is that, unlike me, he reads a book once and moves on to the next. I'm envious of his eagerness to always explore further without looking back. To me books are often life companions, warm blankets I shelter under to find comfort in the knowledge that I will not be disappointed.

I bought Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being when I was 17 years old (between you and me that was a very long time ago) and I have re-read my paper copy to exhaustion. I love books, the feel and smell of paper. I also love the fact that they don't break down, unlike my last Kindle which is now as dead as a dodo. Bitter? Just a bit... But as I still like the idea of a portable library when I travel, I might give it another chance.

Jeffrey's MP duties in London means that he reads a lot whilst commuting on planes and trains, and therefore using his iPad as an e-reader makes sense, with the added bonus that he can highlight the passages he likes, bookmark pages and enjoy various other electronic reading options.

Last thing at night, he picks up a read acquired whilst browsing in a bookshop or ordered online, and later drifts off to sleep... In a way, it makes me feel a bit sad to think that he probably no longer dreams of the adventures of Brer Rabbit and friends.

Growing up in a heart-breaking world will do that to you.

Talking about iPads, e-book readers and other Kindles, I'd love to get your yays or nays on this particular subject. Do you share my preference for paper or have you embraced the era of modern reading technology? Let me know...

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Comments Comments
Stephen Isabirye in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA wrote (1,032 days ago):
It is worth noting that Enid Blyton re-told some of Joel Harris's Brer Rabbot stories in her Brer Rabbit book as I point out in my book on her, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage. Stephen Isabirye
Tony in Northern ireland wrote (1,038 days ago):
Not sure if "what you read" says as much about the person as "what you eat". But in Jeffrey's case it seems to have a resonance - Bible, War, Terrorist perhaps he would be more rounded if he were to widen it slightly. A read of how some Muslim's in the middle east feel about the west may provide a better understanding of why the extremes gain so much support. It is not necessary to read an enlightened ex FBI agents view to come to the conclusion that war of the type the west currently engages will never be won. It would be interesting to hear what Jeffrey thought of the Koran - There is little I believe he would disagree with. Interesting that Enid Blyton comes up two weeks in a row - influenced as she was by a superior Great Britain in a subservant commonwealth - interestingly she also had strong religeous beliefs although resisted becoming Catholic because it was too rigid for her - I wonder if Geoffrey feels the same?
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Fran Barlet
Fran Barlet

Fran is originally from France and has been living in Northern Ireland for 15 years.

She holds a Post-Master's degree in translation from the University of Lille and a PhD on Northern Irish politics from the University of Paris 8.

She has worked for Human Rights NGOs in Belfast and Brussels and now specialises in communications and media relations.

She's also a very avid reader!

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