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Doug Beattie: ‘I suddenly found it really difficult to talk to my 13-year-old daughter or my 13-year-old son’

Parenting in My Shoes: The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party says he felt as his children got older that he was replicating what he saw as his own father’s failings, and he ‘really had to work’ at changing that

“I always wanted to be a millionaire. I always planned to go into space. I always planned to drive a fire engine,” Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and father of two, replies, laughing, when I ask if he’d always planned to be a dad.

“We always plan to do many things, but when you get older your priorities change. I got married, and the moment I did, I knew that I wanted to have children.”

Within a year of being married, Doug’s daughter Leigh was born, followed three years later by the birth of his son, Luke.

But at the time of his children’s births and throughout their childhoods, Doug wasn’t involved in politics. “My whole background has been within military,” he explains. “I had my family while I was serving within the military, bouncing around the world. I missed the births of both of my children. I was overseas on operations. In fact, I didn’t see my son, I think he was about eight weeks old the first time I saw him . . . and I missed the birth of my daughter by about 24 hours.


“So, the military had a real impact on my early family life. Even as my kids started to get old, I missed so much of their lives. Even going to school, the traumas that they had with exams and all of those things.”

Doug says he didn’t have strong political opinions when he was rearing his family. This, he explains, stemmed from his own childhood. “My father was a military man as well, and he wouldn’t allow politics or religion to be discussed in our house. We weren’t a church-going family.

“Politics for me only came about when I was coming to the end of my military career and when I moved back to Northern Ireland. Because Northern Ireland I found actually quite political, whether we like it or not. It’s literally in your face all of the time.”

Doug lost his mother when he was just 14 years old. “My mother died of cancer, but she had suffered for a good two years before that. It was a long and lingering death, and we watched that. That, for me, was quite traumatic.

“It became difficult because I was the only one left in the house – all the rest of my brothers and sisters had moved out. I was left with my father, who was grief-stricken by the loss of my mother. He did turn to alcohol to ease his pain. And unfortunately for me, being the one in the house – he was never cruel or he was never unkind, but I still got dragged into that grief.

“As a young boy, I was trying to keep the house for my father, who was a working man. So, I was coming back from school and lighting the fire, and cooking the dinner and doing everything I had to do. And then, at night, my father would be drinking. In the early hours of the morning he’d call me downstairs, at 2am, and he’d put on the music that he used to listen to with my mum. I’d sit with him while he reminisced about the time.

I suddenly found it really, really difficult to talk to my 13-year-old daughter or my 13-year-old son or hug them and say ‘I love you’

“As a young boy, still at school, being woken at two o’clock in the morning, and then at 6am I was up and having to get ready for school again – life became really quite difficult for me to be honest.”

Describing his father as a “man of his time”, Doug says his dad “found it really difficult to show emotion, to hug his children, or to tell his children that he loved them. In fact, he never ever did in my youth, until finally he was in the last days and weeks of his life.”

The experience had an incalculable impact on Doug, and he was determined to do things differently when his first child was born. “When I had my daughter I was absolutely thrilled and over the moon... and I said to myself that I wouldn’t be my father, that I would show that emotion, that I would show that love and I would make a house that was open and warm, where we could talk about things.

“And I managed to do that until they got to a certain age. When they got to a certain age I started to find it really, really difficult. And I’m not sure if I found it difficult because I was away so much, but I suddenly found it really, really difficult to talk to my 13-year-old daughter or my 13-year-old son or hug them and say ‘I love you’.

“I suddenly felt in myself that I was beginning to replicate my father, and I really had to work at changing that. The whole religion and politics thing stayed with me. We never talked about religion. We never talked about politics. We didn’t view people as anything other than people, regardless of who they were. We were a quite tolerant family in that way. But the personal interactions I found weren’t what I thought I wanted them to be.”

Doug says he believes various experiences may have contributed to mental health challenges he has faced, to varying degrees, in his life. “A lot of them is to do with my service within the military. I think part of it is the loss of my mother at an early age as well. When I was 10 years old, my uncle Samuel was murdered by terrorists, and I still have this very vivid memory of my mother going to the door and being told that her younger brother had been murdered and her falling to her knees screaming, and I have that imprinted in the back of my head and very little after that. There’s real gaps in my memory.

There’s no rehearsal for life. There’s no rehearsal for parenting

“I’ve struggled a bit with mental health issues. It doesn’t leave you. You have to accept it. You have to understand it. You have to work at it. How has it affected me with my children? I mean sometimes – and I’ve never been violent in any shape or form with my family – but I have been angry, and I have gone into rages. And they are rages which, on reflection, I think back and say, ‘Where did that come from’? ‘What was that all about?’ I can’t really put my finger on what it was, and I sense in many ways it’s that mental health sort of dragging, sort of getting a hold of me, in many cases.

“Certainly when I came back from deployments, when I was in Iraq or whether I was in Afghanistan, and I came back to my family, it was my family and my children particularly that were able to bring me around to the here and now.”

After becoming a grandfather, Doug and his family had to deal with unimaginable tragedy when his young grandson, Cameron, died aged one year. “There’s no rehearsal for life. There’s no rehearsal for parenting,” he reflects. “My daughter Leigh had a lovely family. She had three young boys, Cameron being the youngest one.”

Doug explains that one of his older grandsons, who has additional needs and other health concerns, had been the child the family were more concerned about. “The family has a deep history of epilepsy, right across the family through different levels, and it has affected all of their children and Leigh herself. Cameron had had a seizure, and that seizure had lasted something like an hour and 10 minutes.”

Doug says that following scans at the hospital, Cameron was allowed to return home. A future MRI scan was planned. “Sadly, two months later, Leigh went upstairs and Cameron was dead in his bed. She rang the ambulance service and they tried to get her to resuscitate Cameron, but he’d been dead for a while, and that in itself is quite traumatising.

“The day we went to bury Cameron, two things happened which would stick with me. The first is, the day we buried Cameron is the day I was first elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly – a real bittersweet moment for me on a personal level. And, secondly, a letter arrived through the door from the hospital inviting Cameron for his MRI scan. It arrived on the day of his funeral. The two things became quite traumatising for the family.

“How do you parent through that grief? It’s nearly an impossible question, because we’ve laughed together about Cameron, when we think about Cameron and the things he did and all of those really important moments in life. And we’ve cried thinking about Cameron. Even today, we’ve cried thinking about Cameron.

“I suppose the only thing you can do as a parent is offer that support, that listening ear. Some people will use throwaway comments like, ‘Ach, it was six years ago, never worry now, you’ll move on. Time will be the healer.’ And it never really is and it’s the last thing that a parent wants to hear. It’s the last thing I want to hear as a grandparent.”

Doug says he worried about Leigh, her husband Mark and their young family managing in the aftermath of Cameron’s death, but the family have moved closer to Doug in Portadown now, which, he explains, means he can support them more.

He has recently become a grandfather again with the birth of his new granddaughter Skyler. Though there is great joy in Skyler’s arrival, Doug is aware of the need to support his daughter and her fears that such devastating loss could happen again. “They have to live with it, And they will continue to live with it, I suppose, until Skyler starts getting a bit older.”

Doug’s children were in their 20s by the time he entered politics, and the impacts of his public role now are something he can’t quite protect them from.

“Politics never had that immediate effect on my children at a young age. It has an effect on my children now in later years, and maybe [that is] even harder for them in some cases. They have to suck up the attacks on me. Social media is prevalent right across our society.

The highs are the birth of my daughter and my son, and a low point is the fact I wasn’t there for it. The real low point of parenting for me is the absences, the time away

“They watch some seriously abusive attacks on their dad, and they have to deal with that as well. And sometimes within their workplace, there will be off-hand remarks thrown at them as well.”

And Doug is aware that what happens in his political life also affects his children, and vice versa. “When I do something wrong – and I don’t get everything right and I freely admit when I get something wrong and I apologise and I make amends as best I could – but, when I do that, my children are tarnished with that.”

He is quick to point out that this is not unique to politics though. “My son, when he joined the military as a young man, like I did at a very early age, he wasn’t able to make mistakes. Every time he made mistakes, people were sucking their teeth and saying, ‘Oh your dad wouldn’t have done that’.”

Doug says in raising a son and a daughter, he never set different standards or values for them. It was important to them that they learned “tolerance. An understanding, an equality, a kindness, all of those things of the LGBTQI community”, and also “of people from different cultural backgrounds and communities”.

He says the highs and lows of parenthood are linked. “The highs are the birth of my daughter and my son, and a low point is the fact I wasn’t there for it. The real low point of parenting for me is the absences, the time away. The inability to be there when really important things happen in their lives, not just as children but in later life.

“A low point for me is when they left home. I enjoy them around. My son is back every now and again. And he’s in the house and he fills it, and he annoys the life out of me. He never stops talking. The moment he goes there’s an emptiness, and I sense the same with my daughter.

“I kind of yearn back as a father to the six-year-old and the three-year-old, that sweet point in life.”

Parenting in My Shoes