Judges put Best feet forward for Northern Ireland's unsung champions
Panel had tough task picking Spirit of NI Award recipients
Ireland and Ulster rugby captain Rory Best has joined forces with local actors to pay tribute to Northern Ireland's unsung heroes.
The retiring sportsman sat on the judging panel last week for this year's Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with Specsavers which will honour unsung heroes from across the country.
He was joined by accomplished actor Ian McElhinney, of Game Of Thrones and Derry Girls fame, and Bronagh Waugh who has starred in a range of shows including Unforgotten, Hollyoaks and The Fall. The other members of the judging panel were UTV's Rita Fitzgerald, Sunday Life editor Martin Breen and Specsavers store director Tony McGinn.
There were a total of 10 awards categories, including awards for Unsung Hero, Charity Champion, 999 Hero, Spirit of Health, Spirit of Education, Spirit of Youth and Spirit of Sport.
The finalists will be at the awards ceremony - which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary - at Titanic Belfast on Wednesday, June 5. Snow Patrol will be performing on the night.
Rory (36) told Sunday Life he was astounded by the stories of all the nominees, of which there were over 1,000.
He said: "Trying to pick winners was incredibly tough; everyone had their own opinions on it and in the end we got there but it just goes to show how many great people there are doing great things in Northern Ireland.
"Just to be asked to take part in the extraordinary things people are doing, is something I couldn't turn down.
"I'm incredibly lucky with the profession that I do to be asked along to these things and get a real flavour of what's going on and the things people are doing. It really is a fantastic awards night."
Bronagh said she was just amazed "by the people in our community that we are celebrating".
"For me it's such an important part of lifting up and recognising people who make such huge change and impact on people's lives. It's also for the people who have done small acts of kindness which make a big impact, too. You don't have to have taken on some huge physical feat; little acts of kindness matter, too.
"Especially for us being in a political stalemate it's even more important. The community leaders are the people that really matter; they shape our communities, have an impact and raise up the next generation of young people and inspire them.
"I have read some utterly astounding stories today that make you so grateful for everything you have in your life, seeing what some people have been through and what some people choose to dedicate their lives to," said the Coleraine actress.
Ian McElhinney, aka Granda Joe in Derry Girls, who has been a judge for the past three years, added: "It's always very difficult because there are people in there who have done extraordinary things, and you have to make an invidious choice to say which people are more deserving and it's always impossible to do that."
The awards ceremony will be hosted by TV presenters Pamela Ballantine and Marc Mallett and will be shown on UTV in a one-hour special days after the June 5 event.
Sunday Life editor Martin Breen said: "I look forward to honouring our amazing finalists on June 5. Everyone around the judging table was humbled and moved by the entries we read. Those nominated were all truly inspiring people."
A limited number of tickets are available for the 2019 Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards for £75 plus VAT and booking fee at events.inm.ie/sunday-life-spirit-of-northern-ireland-awards-2019