Belfast Telegraph

UK Website Of The Year

The top 10 news stories of 2015: From Ashers and Nama to Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 qualification

Published 28/12/2015

Pastor McConnell
Pastor McConnell
Frankie Boyle
Sports Personality of the Year 2015

Laura Abernethy looks back at a year of Northern Ireland stories that made the biggest headlines in your favourite daily newspaper.

Pastor James McConnell

The Belfast Telegraph broke the story of firebrand evangelical preacher Pastor James McConnell in 2014 after he slammed the Islamic faith as "Satanic" and as a "doctrine spawned in Hell" in a sermon at his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle church.

The 78-year-old was charged under the 2003 Communications Act with "sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network a message or matter that was grossly offensive" as the sermon was also streamed online.

Throughout 2015, as he prepared for his trial, he insisted that he would rather go to prison than withdraw his remarks.

His defence team began to prepare his case, and this newspaper revealed that they were trying to get BBC presenter Stephen Nolan to testify for the preacher.

Despite attempts by his lawyers to stop his trial going ahead, it finally began earlier this month at Belfast Magistrates Court.

The pastor described the prosecution as "ridiculous" and insisted he never intended to hurt or offend any Muslims. He added that he believed he was preaching within the confines of his own church.

After three days, judgement was reserved. Pastor McConnell will learn his fate in the new year.

Read more: Judgement reserved in 'heathen Islam sermon' Pastor McConnell trial in Belfast

Nama

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In July, independent TD Mick Wallace claimed under parliamentary privilege in the Dail that a Northern Ireland politician or political party was set to receive £7.5m from a sale involving the National Assets Management Agency (Nama).

Nama, the Republic's 'bad bank' was set up to deal with toxic loans after the crash. The £7.5m was reportedly a pay-off for sale of Nama's Northern Ireland loan book for £1.3bn, a transaction that entailed a €280m loss to the taxpayer.

Speculation arose that the politician was First Minister Peter Robinson, an allegation which he denies.

A police investigation, led by the UK crime agency, began and Stormont's Finance Committee also launched an inquiry into the deal.

Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson appeared before the committee in September and claimed that five individuals had been due to share the sum, which had been moved from an Isle of Man bank account. He said they were Peter Robinson, Frank Cushnahan, Ian Coulter, Andrew Creighton (a developer) and David Watters (an accountant).

Peter Robinson also appeared before the committee in October and he continued to deny the allegations.

Read more: Nama row: Businessmen deny Jamie Bryson's claims about £7m fee

Peter Robinson resignation

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In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, First Minister Peter Robinson announced he planned to step down from his role at Stormont and as leader of the DUP by the end of 2015.

Following months of negotiations, the Fresh Start agreement was signed just days before Mr Robinson's announcement. He said he felt it was the right time to give up the position he had held since 2008, when he took over from the late Reverend Ian Paisley.

Mr Robinson, who suffered a heart attack in May, added that his decision was not related to his health problems. He said he had accomplished the aims he set himself as DUP leader, outlined in previous Belfast Telegraph interviews as including a date and rate for the devolution of corporation tax, seeing his former East Belfast seat retaken by his protege Gavin Robinson and stabilising the Assembly.

After weeks of speculation over his successor, Arlene Foster was declared the only candidate. She was elected as leader of the party earlier this month and will take over as First Minister in the new year.

Read more: Peter Robinson insists he is stepping down 'entirely on my own terms'

Jim Wells

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Former health minister Jim Wells hit the headlines in May after controversial comments during a hustings event in Downpatrick.

He was wrongly accused of saying: "You don't bring a child up in a homosexual relationship. That a child is far more likely to be abused and neglected."

It was subsequently found that the footage had been edited to give an incorrect impression of Mr Wells' views.

Mr Wells told the Belfast Telegraph in February that his wife, Grace, was seriously ill after suffering two strokes. After the hustings, he said that he had just come from a hospital visit and his mind was not on the debate.

A police investigation into his comments was launched weeks later, and Mr Wells revealed in this paper that he was going to stand down from his position.

He said he felt that his first duty was to his wife, and that he could no longer dedicate the right amount of time to the Department of Health.

In September, he spoke out again after he was cleared by police and he said that he has glad that his six months of hell were over. He also revealed his wife was so ill, he had not told her he had left his job.

Read more: Gay row unionist Jim Wells says his career was destroyed in just 30 seconds

European Qualification

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For 30 years, Northern Ireland football fans have been waiting to go to a major championship. This was finally the year as the side made history and secured a place in France at the European Championships, which take place next summer.

The Green and White Army had not qualified for a major tournament since the world cup in Mexico in 1986, but from the beginning, fans were hopeful and the campaign got off to a great start with three victories.

Despite a loss against Romania at the end of 2014, the boys went on to secure point after point throughout the year, and as the last few matches approached the whole country was holding its breath.

Thousands of fans packed out Windsor Park, despite the redevelopment problems, to see a win against Greece in October, guaranteeing Northern Ireland a place in the final.

Just days later, Michael O'Neill's boys beat Finland and finished the campaign at the top of group F with six wins, three draws and just one loss.

Thousands are expected to flock to France next summer for the finals, where Northern Ireland will play Poland, Ukraine and Germany.

Read more: Northern Ireland secure qualification for Euro 2016 with 3-1 victory over Greece

Sports Personality of the Year

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Back in April, the city rejoiced as the Belfast Telegraph revealed that sport's biggest awards show, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, would be coming to Northern Ireland for the first time.

Excitement built when the 12-person shortlist was announced, although fans from here were left slightly disappointed that there were no local contenders.

But the news turned sour after homophobic and sexist comments by world heavyweight champion boxer Tyson Fury led to a petition, which was signed by more than 139,000 people, calling on the BBC to remove him from the shortlist.

This newspaper revealed earlier this month that one of the show's other stars, Greg Rutherford, threatened to quit the awards ceremony because of the comments, but he later changed his mind.

Despite the pressure, the BBC refused to remove Fury.

The star-studded event went ahead and a packed out SSE Arena watched as Andy Murray was crowned Sports Personality of the Year.

Read more: BBC Spoty chaos: Greg Rutherford to take on Tyson Fury after all, as he backtracks on quitting awards

Kevin McGuigan murder

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The murder of former IRA gunman Kevin McGuigan almost brought Stormont to its knees after the PSNI was forced to reveal the IRA had not gone away.

McGuigan was shot outside his Comber Court home in Belfast in what was believed to be a revenge attack for the murder of Gerald 'Jock' Davidson four months earlier.

A week later, PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton released a statement that said the Provisional IRA still existed in Northern Ireland and had played a part in the murder.

But he added that the force did not believe the IRA was still engaged in terrorism.

The announcement led to resignation of the UUP from the Executive. After a bid by the DUP to adjourn the Assembly was defeated, DUP ministers launched their controversial in/out policy, where they resigned, returned days later for a few hours and then resigned again.

Arlene Foster remained as Finance Minister.

An independent panel was established to review paramilitary structures, and DUP ministers then returned to their posts on October 20.

Weeks of talks followed and Stormont was stabilised once more the with Fresh Start agreement in November.

Read more: Kevin McGuigan murdered three months after Jock Davison, this is a chilling warning from the IRA: don't dare cross us

Ashers

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Newtownabbey-based bakers Ashers found themselves at the centre of a controversial court case when they refused to make a cake featuring Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie and a slogan that said "Support gay marriage" for an event in 2014.

The couple behind Ashers, Daniel and Karen McArthur, who are evangelical Christians, said that the order was "at odds with their beliefs".

Gareth Lee, who placed the order, complained to the Equality Commission, which then warned the company that they had allegedly discriminated against Mr Lee on the grounds of his sexual orientation.

The McArthurs declared they would make a stand on the grounds of religious freedom, taking the case to court. They were backed by the Christian Institute.

DUP MLAs proposed introducing a conscience clause that would allow businesses to refuse services to a customer if it was against their religious belief because of the gay cake row.

After three days in court in May, the judge ruled in favour of Mr Lee and said that although she recognised that the couple had "genuine and deeply held" religious views, Ashers was not exempt from the law.

Read more: Ashers Bakery lose 'gay cake' case: 'We will not be closing down, we have not done anything wrong' says boss

Frankie Boyle

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The controversy surrounding comedian Frankie Boyle's appearance at West Belfast festival Feile an Phobail hit the headlines throughout the summer.

Campaigners had called for the gig at the part-publicly funded festival to be cancelled following his offensive remarks about children with Down's syndrome during a stand-up show in Reading in 2010.

A group called Feile for All held a protest outside the Feile offices in Belfast and threatened to protest the event.

After weeks of negotiations, a compromise was reached, and both the festival and the campaigners released separate statements.

The Feile said it took the "criticism extremely seriously" and completely appreciated there had been a "deep sense of hurt caused with the booking".

They apologised to the families but said the show had to go on. The Belfast Telegraph had revealed that the festival would face financial ruin if the gig was cancelled as 2,000 tickets had been sold.

The Feile for All group said it "felt real and deep hurt" and added that it "felt that the Feile, by extension, was condoning the same, contrary to their ethos of inclusivity".

Boyle's show went ahead and included jokes on child abuse, rape and the disabled.

Read more: Down's syndrome group's fury as Frankie Boyle booked for Belfast festival

Air Ambulance campaign

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Following the death of racing doctor John Hinds, people across Northern Ireland got behind a campaign to bring an air ambulance to Northern Ireland.

The 35-year-old consultant died in a road accident at a Skerries 100 session in July. He had been campaigning for an emergency medical helicopter for Northern Ireland.

The need for the helicopter was highlighted after spectator Violet McAfee was airlifted to hospital after an accident at the Northwest 200. The air ambulance had to be flown from Sligo as Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK without one.

Dr Hinds helped to save Violet's life and said that it highlighted that an air ambulance was a "necessity, not a luxury." He met with Health Minister Simon Hamilton just weeks before his death.

More than 7,000 people signed a petition for the helicopter in the weeks after Dr Hinds died, and his partner Janet Atcheson continued the campaign in his memory.

Due to the overwhelming response, Simon Hamilton announced in September that Northern Ireland would get its first air ambulance.

Earlier this month, the North West 200 announced that the newly established charity for the air ambulance would be their nominated charity for next year's event.

Read more: Air ambulance a fitting tribute to John Hinds

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