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Northern Ireland’s top 100 newsmakers of 2021, No 25-1: Hero firefighters, Van’s rant and a brave school principal

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Northern Ireland's top 100 newsmakers of 2021, No 25-1. At No 15: Exhausted firefighter Haley Agnew at work on Slieve Donard

Northern Ireland's top 100 newsmakers of 2021, No 25-1. At No 15: Exhausted firefighter Haley Agnew at work on Slieve Donard

Northern Ireland's top 100 newsmakers of 2021, No 25-1. At No 15: Exhausted firefighter Haley Agnew at work on Slieve Donard

We conclude the (non-exhaustive) end-of-year countdown of the people and events that shaped 2021 compiled by our news team. Who takes the first spot and who would you have added to our list?

25.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The Lurgan woman was this year awarded the Copley Medal, the Royal Society’s highest prize and the world’s oldest scientific honour, for her work on the discovery of pulsars in the 1960s, making her the second female to ever be presented with the prestigious prize.

24.

Doug Beattie

The new Ulster Unionist Party leader has gained lots of positive responses from unionists (and even non-unionists) for his progressive views and fresh approach since taking the reins. He has even managed to convert those from other parties, with Belfast Alliance councillor Carole Howard jumping ship over to the UUP, citing Beattie’s “commitment to inclusive decision-making” as one of the reasons for doing so.

23.

Kenneth Branagh

It’s hard to include the actors from the acclaimed Belfast film without mentioning the man behind the magic himself. His cinematic letter to his home city reflects on Branagh’s own memories of 1969 when he was aged nine and The Troubles were just beginning, setting off decades of tragedy and violence.

22.

Conor Bradley

Co Tyrone teenager Bradley is the first Northern Ireland footballer to play for Liverpool FC in 67 years, becoming successor to Sammy Smyth, who last appeared for the Reds in 1954. Bradley made his debut for Klopp’s Reds against Norwich Cityb in September, and at just 18 years old, the future looks bright for the Castlederg right-back.

21.

Gemma Bradley

Not only did the Draperstown singer and broadcaster release her first music video last month (which was shot in trendy locations across Belfast), but the 25-year-old has also been rubbing shoulders with DJ royalty since getting her own show on BBC Radio 1.

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20.

Lilian Seenoi-Barr

The refugee activist and Black Lives Matter campaigner became Northern Ireland’s first black female councillor in June, representing the Foyleside area for the SDLP. She came to Northern Ireland in 2010 as an asylum seeker from Kenya, where she campaigned for the rights of Maasai women, particularly around genital mutilation and forced marriages.

19.

Donna Traynor

The longstanding BBC News NI presenter had everyone talking when she announced her departure from the broadcaster via Twitter in November. It has since come to light that the 56-year-old will be taking action against her employer for age discrimination.

18.

Nicola Bailey

The Belfast medic was named UK Nurse of the Year in recognition of her efforts to ensure women can access safe and timely sexual healthcare.

17.

Amanda Brown and sisters

They waived their anonymity to go public about how they were sexually and physically abused by former Ireland rugby international David Tweed. The abuse helpline Nexus experienced a surge in calls after the sisters spoke out.

16.

Ballymurphy massacre relatives

The families of 10 people killed in west Belfast in August 1971 received the closure they had been seeking for five decades when the coroner declared their loved ones were innocent.

15.

Haley Agnew

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An exhausted Haley Agnew wipes sweat from her brow as she works with fellow firefighters on Slieve Donard mountain (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

An exhausted Haley Agnew wipes sweat from her brow as she works with fellow firefighters on Slieve Donard mountain (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

An exhausted Haley Agnew wipes sweat from her brow as she works with fellow firefighters on Slieve Donard mountain (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

The Kilkeel firefighter shot to fame in April after being pictured looking exhausted as she battled Northern Ireland’s biggest gorse fire in a decade. Haley was one 100 firefighters who brought the blaze on Slieve Donard, which is believed to have been started deliberately, under control.

14.

Michelle O’Neill

The Deputy First Minister’s most notable media moments this year included testing positive with Covid-19, photos from her daughter Saoirse’s winter wedding and her public blasting of a fake Whatsapp message which purported to come from an Executive member, suggesting an imminent announcement of new restrictions.

13.

JW Anderson

The Magherafelt fashion designer made headlines when Schitt’s Creek star Dan Levy sported one of his pieces at the Met Gala. Mr Anderson, son of Ulster and Irish rugby legend Willie, moved to London from Londonderry to launch his clothing label in 2008.

12.

Mark Allen

The Antrim snooker player won a world title and declared himself bankrupt all in the one year. After winning the Northern Ireland Open in October, the 35-year-old said that because of his financial troubles, he was unsure if he would get any of the £70,000 prize money. He believes he could write a book about the past year, which he described as one of the toughest he has ever faced.

11.

Array Collective

The Belfast art collective made history by becoming the first group from Northern Ireland to win the Turner Prize.

10.

Jamie Dornan

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Jude Hill (left) stars as "Buddy" and Jamie Dornan (right) stars as "Pa" in director Kenneth Branagh's BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Jude Hill (left) stars as "Buddy" and Jamie Dornan (right) stars as "Pa" in director Kenneth Branagh's BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Jude Hill (left) stars as "Buddy" and Jamie Dornan (right) stars as "Pa" in director Kenneth Branagh's BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features

The Holywood hunk helped put Northern Ireland on the global stage with his performance as Pa in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. While the film has been generating no small amount of Oscars buzz, Jamie said the most important screening was at the Belfast Film Festival last month. He stars in the new BBC thriller The Tourist, to be shown on New Year’s Day.

9.

Edwin Poots

It’s safe to say it’s been a dramatic year for the Agriculture Minister. He returned to his post in March after recovering from cancer surgery. Months later, he replaced Arlene Foster as DUP leader, only to step down after just three weeks. His resignation came after one of the most damaging days in the party’s 50-year history, when colleagues revolted over a deal he had agreed with Sinn Fein and the government about Irish language legislation. He also hit the headlines over to his department’s response to an outbreak of avian flu, a climate change bill at odds with proposals from the Green Party, and a decision by his department to temporarily remove customs staff from posts amid apparent concern for their safety.

8.

Matthew McNabb

The Co Down heart-throb found fame on ITV’s Love Island show this summer. Many viewers loved him for his handsome looks and Downpatrick accent, but the 26-year-old became a true fan favourite for his one-liners. The bookies had him as one of the favourites to win, but he only lasted three weeks. He was praised for opening up about his mental health after a friend died weeks before the show started. He’s returning to screens in the new year as a contestant on RTE’s Dancing with the Stars.

7.

Jude Hill

Wee Jude became the star we never knew we needed when he took on the role of Buddy in Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical Belfast. The 11-year-old received global critical acclaim, including a nomination for breakthrough performance at the British Independent Film Awards. Belfast has received seven Golden Globe nominations. It’s a poignant story of love, laughter and loss in one boy’s childhood amid the social and political tumult of the late 1960s. It is due to go on general release across the UK and Ireland on January 21.

6.

Patricia Donnelly

Dr Donnelly is head of the local Covid-19 vaccination programme and is leading the biggest immunisation programme in the history of our health service. The clinical psychologist has served as a director in a number of trusts, working across multiple disciplines and playing a key role in important projects with the Chief Medical Officer, such as chairing the HSC Clinical Ethics Forum and advising on Covid escalation plans. Under Dr Donnelly, Northern Ireland became the first UK region to have all care homes vaccinated. As we near the end of the year, more than three million jabs have been delivered and 90% of the population has a had a first dose.

5.

Rachel Furness

The Liverpool FC midfielder became Northern Ireland’s all-time top international goalscorer in late November, taking the Northern Ireland women’s record one ahead of the men’s, which is currently held by Linfield manager and local legend David Healy. Rachel (33) is doing wonders for the women’s game along with her teammates, who also made history this year by qualifying for their first major tournament, Euro 2022. Furness’s incredible achievements have won her high praise from a raft of sporting legends, including Gerry Armstrong and, of course, Mr Healy himself.

4.

Van Morrison

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North Antrim MP Ian Paisley on stage with Sir Van Morrison.

North Antrim MP Ian Paisley on stage with Sir Van Morrison.

North Antrim MP Ian Paisley on stage with Sir Van Morrison.

Recent reports on Sir Van Morrison have been dominated by his controversial opinions on lockdown. Recently, the Belfast singer-songwriter was at the centre of defamation proceedings after he branded Health Minister Robin Swann “very dangerous” over his handling of Covid restrictions. It was not just his comments that grabbed attention it was the way he delivered them, repeatedly chanting on the stage at Belfast’s Europa Hotel and inviting DUP MP Ian Paisley up from the audience to join him in the act. Mr Paisley has since apologised to Mr Swann. Morrison has also been nominated for a Golden Globe for Down to Joy, a song he wrote for the film Belfast.

3.

Diane Dawson

The principal of Braniel Primary School in east Belfast became a talking point for “standing by her convictions”. Despite being one of a family of nine with strong Protestant convictions, she supported the setting up of an Irish language nursery on the site of her school, refusing to be cowed by those who branded her a “Sinn Fein Trojan horse”. The nursery bosses subsequently chose a different location, but the fact she had the overwhelming support of parents speaks of the esteem in which she is held. As someone who is clinically vulnerable to Covid, she also challenged the Executive’s decision to relax safety measures in schools

2.

Eamonn Holmes

The Belfast broadcaster was in the news over a number of blunders and, more recently, for his shock decision to take a job with GB News. The 62-year-old will host a new programme on the right-wing news channel from January 3 after 15 years of working on This Morning with wife Ruth Langsford. He is teaming up with Isabel Webster, who he previously worked with on Sky News Sunrise. He made headlines earlier this year by comparing a This Morning guest who had received cosmetic surgery to a hamster.

1.

Arlene Foster

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Arlene Foster on GB News

Arlene Foster on GB News

Arlene Foster on GB News

Far from being washed up after the Poots coup, the former first minister reinvented herself as a television presenter and now fronts a show on GB News, writes Allison Morris. During her time as first minister, Mrs Foster said she had handed over the management of her Twitter account to her staff because of the amount of online abuse she received. It was clear she’d regained control of it when she used the day of Mr Poots departure to tweet: “Just had a lovely lunch at Deanes at Queens with a good friend. Hope everyone is having a great day this lovely afternoon.


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