Looking back on the year just passed and the one to come
Claire McNeilly takes a look at who made the news over the last year and who is set to grab the headlines in Northern Ireland and beyond in the next 12 months.
2016 ended on a sour note for Arlene Foster due to the RHI scandal, but there were still plenty of golden moments for our stars of the screen, music and sport
1. Who would have predicted that 2016 would end with Arlene Foster fighting to stay in her job?
A few weeks ago Northern Ireland’s premier politician would have been reflecting on the best 12 months of her career, which began with the Fermanagh MLA’s appointment as DUP leader in early December 2015.
By mid-January she’d succeeded Peter Robinson as First Minister as well — the first time a female had occupied such high office.
A stunning DUP performance in May’s Assembly election followed and the formidable Mrs Foster was indeed mistress of all she surveyed. But that was before the flawed Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, which was set up under her stewardship and could end up costing hundreds of millions of pounds, hit the headlines after a TV interview with ex-DUP minister Jonathan Bell.
Mrs Foster has robustly resisted calls for her resignation, but it’s safe to assume the 46-year-old won’t be looking forward to the new year as much this time around.
2. Carl Frampton lived up to all expectations in 2016. The 29-year-old Belfast man finally met bitter rival Scott Quigg in a clash to unify the IBF and WBA World super-bantamweight titles and, roared on by 12,000 travelling fans in Manchester, the Jackal left nobody in any doubt who was top dog — breaking Quigg’s jaw in the process.
It was then time to step up a weight and he went straight for Leo Santa Cruz’s WBA World featherweight title, defeating the Mexican in an epic 12-rounder in New York to become the first Northern Ireland boxer to win World belts in two different weight classes.
Named the British Boxing Board of Control’s Fighter of the Year, he is also in line for the American Boxing Writers World Fighter of the Year award.
But, bizarrely, there would be no place for him on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist. Inexplicable.
3. Some people thought Sir Van Morrison’s memorable open air concert on Belfast’s Cyprus Avenue in 2015 — which marked his 70th birthday — also suggested that the music genius was getting ready to put away the old saxophone.
How wrong could they be? If anything, 2016 took the blues maestro to even greater heights. Indeed, more people are aware of Sir Van now than when he burst onto the scene with Them and then took away the music critics’ collective breath with Astral Weeks half-a-century ago.
The native of Hyndford Street in east Belfast has played to sell-out crowds on both sides of the Atlantic over the past 12 months, and even found time to release a new album, appropriately titled Keep Me Singing. Not only that, but one of the tracks — Going Down To Bangor — made it into Rolling Stone magazine’s top 50 songs of 2016.
Van is still The Man.
4. He has been in the business a long time, but 2016 was the year Jimmy Nesbitt reached the pinnacle of his acting career.
The 51-year-old Broughshane-born thespian is now the undisputed go-to man for big budget television drama in the UK — and he’s had three huge hits in the last 12 months.
The father-of-two excelled in the massively successful return of Cold Feet on ITV and then earned accolades for his sparkling performance in Stan Lee’s Lucky Man on Sky 1.
And who could forget his haunting turn as double killer Colin Howell in the ITV mini-series The Secret, which is based on real-life events close to home?
Thirteen years ago Cold Feet ‘made’ Nesbitt, but this time around it was his character (Adam) that the series would rise or fall on.
As with most Nesbitt vehicles these days, an appreciative audience voted with their fingers and tuned in.
5. There were more than a few eyebrows raised when Bethany Firth was left off the list for Sports Personality of the Year 2016.
The BBC was right in using the awards to reflect success in the Rio Paralympics, with several athletes from those Games making the final cut.
Yet, amazingly, no room was found for the most decorated of them all — the all-conquering 20-year-old swimmer from Seaforde, Co Down. Bethany brought home three gold medals and one silver, clocking up two world records and a Paralympic record to boot.
Not bad for a girl who developed a fear of water after falling into a pool when she was just two.
But her school made swimming lessons compulsory and the rest, as they say, is history.
To cap it all, Bethany even upstaged glamorous Hollywood star Kim Cattrall at Belfast City Airport during her journey home. The gracious Sex And The City star actually joined the well-wishers.
2017 promises to be busier for Claire Hanna MLA, football prodigy Ethan Warnock, singer Ciaran Lavery, theatre’s Rachel Tucker and The Fall co-star Valene Kane
1. Not only is the SDLP MLA a star performer on the Hill, but she’s going to become a mum again this year, making her the first politician in almost a decade to have a baby while a Member of the Stormont Assembly.
Ms Hanna, who is widely tipped as a future leader of her party, already has two young daughters — Eimear (4) and Aideen (2) — with her husband, councillor Donal Lyons, but that hasn’t detracted from her high-flying political career to date.
The 36-year-old self-assured feminist — who has already said that, despite her plans to breastfeed, she will return to work quickly after giving birth — is anticipated to be a key player in the evolving Opposition in the corridors of power.
A confident speaker, she’s known for her debating prowess on issues including controversial paramilitary parades, and we can expect more of that this year.
2. Back in the early Sixties Glentoran rejected a young footballer by the name of George Best because he was “too small”.
They didn’t make the same mistake, however, when Ethan Warnock rocked up to The Oval with his tiny boots.
He was only eight years old at the time, but the club saw something special in him, and they were right.
Now aged 15, Ethan has already written himself into the record books by becoming the youngest outfield player to turn out for the Glentoran first team.
But you’ll need to be as quick as Ethan himself if you want to see the Ashfield pupil perform in local football.
The gifted Northern Ireland schoolboy and youth international has already been snapped up by Premier League club Everton, which he’ll join in the summer.
It’s surely only a matter of time before the Belfast boy gets a call from senior international boss Michael O’Neill.
3. The tiny Co Antrim village of Aghagallon barely registers on the Northern Ireland map, but one of its current inhabitants is about to change all that. He’s hitting 30 now, so you couldn’t exactly call singer-songwriter Ciaran Lavery an overnight sensation.
He’s been performing live since he was 15 and, for seven years, was frontman for the talented but chaotic country folk band Captain Kennedy. Now, however, big things are beckoning for Lavery as a solo artist. His first album, Not Nearly Dark, was critically acclaimed on its release three years ago but his follow-up, Let Bad In, has just landed Lavery the prestigious Northern Ireland Music Prize for 2016.
In the coming year the man who has already had successful tours of the US, Canada and Europe is expected to release a new album, as well as passing 100 million streams on Spotify.
These days, that’s when you know you’ve made it.
4. Already a star of the Broadway and West End stages, the Belfast singer is now planning a transition to the silver screen.
Once her West End stint as Elphaba in the hit musical Wicked ends in mid-January, the 35-year-old will move back across the pond with her theatre director husband Guy Retallack (51) and son Ben (3).
Rachel’s debut vehicle in the Big Apple, The Last Ship, sank in January 2014 after poor reviews and terrible ticket sales — but her performance as Meg Dawson, a woman caught up in a torrid love triangle, saw her feted as one of the top 10 New York stage performers that year.
There followed a staggeringly successful run as Elphaba on Broadway, which cemented her as one of the world’s top stage musical stars.
With her sights now on TV and film work — specifically Game Of Thrones or a hit US drama — watch this space.
5. Valene who? Her real name might not be too familiar, so let’s try Rose Stagg. Yes, now you know! Rose Stagg was, of course, one of the few raven-haired beauties who didn’t end up as a deceased victim of psycho serial killer Paul Spector in The Fall.
Instead, she seemed to spend most of her time in his car boot — not the sort of role, you’d think, that would get the actress playing her noticed. But you’d be wrong.
Valene’s performance as the tortured and demented Rose stood out, so much so that her next job offer was on the new Star Wars film Rogue One.
It promises to be a big year ahead for the 29-year-old actress from Co Down.
Hollywood producers believe Valene — who defied parental advice to pursue a career in drama — has both the screen presence and acting range which will make her unforgettable to audiences. The scripts are rolling in and are likely to continue to do so.