Belfast Telegraph

What made the headlines in 2017 - a year of roller-coaster highs and lows

Adrian Rutherford looks back on 10 of the biggest stories of 2017

Adrian Rutherford looks back on 10 of the biggest stories of 2017.

Death of Martin McGuinness

In death, as in life, Martin McGuinness's journey from IRA leader to peacemaker provoked controversy and deeply divided opinion.

The former Deputy First Minister passed away on March 21 following a short illness. He was 66.

His death came amid a political crisis that brought down the devolved government that Mr McGuinness jointly led for almost a decade.

The passing of an important but controversial figure drew tributes from Prime Ministers past and present, a former US President and senior figures within unionism, including DUP leader Arlene Foster.

The Queen, whose handshake with Mr McGuinness in 2012 was a seismic moment, sent a private message to the republican leader's family.

Yet relatives who lost loved ones through IRA violence were less forgiving.

Norman Tebbit, whose wife was paralysed when the Provos bombed the Conservative Party conference in Brighton, said he hoped Mr McGuinness was "parked in a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of Hell for the rest of eternity".

Two days after Mr McGuinness's death, thousands of people packed the streets of the Bogside for his funeral.

Mrs Foster and former American President Bill Clinton were among the mourners.

They heard Mr McGuinness described as a "complex man" whose life was a "remarkable journey".

Northern Ireland’s house of horrors

It read like something from the pages of a dark and sinister crime novel.

But the appalling events which took place in a house in a quiet Craigavon neighbourhood were all too real, and shook Northern Ireland to the core.

For years Keith and Caroline Baker’s home at Drumellan Mews hid a terrible secret.

The husband and wife subjected a disabled woman to horrific sexual assaults while holding her as a virtual prisoner.

They kept their victim in a squalid room without carpet, a light bulb, bedclothes or curtains, for eight years.

Police rescued her from the house in 2012.

The woman, who had severe learning difficulties, was emaciated and had only a single tooth left in her mouth.

The captive woman weighed just six stone (38kg) when she was found.

The couple pleaded guilty to a catalogue of charges including causing a person with a mental disorder to engage in sexual activity.

Sentencing Keith Baker to 15 years in jail and a further five years on licence after his release, Judge Patrick Lynch QC described the 61-year-old as a “Svengali-type figure” whose wife was a “pawn doing his bidding”.

Caroline Baker received a three-year sentence, 18 months of which will be spent in jail, with the remainder on licence.

The collapse of Stormont

A year dominated by political uncertainty began with the collapse of Stormont on January 16.

The Executive imploded amid controversy over the Renewable Heat Incentive, a botched green energy scheme. When the scale of the fiasco emerged, political rivals blamed  the DUP’s Arlene Foster, who was Enterprise Minister when the scheme was set up.

On January 10 Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister, citing concern at the DUP’s handling of the RHI affair.

On January 16 Sinn Fein did not nominate a Deputy First Minister to replace Mr McGuinness, causing the devolved institutions to fall.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire responded by calling a snap election for March 2. It saw gains for Sinn Fein, with the party taking 27 seats, just one behind the DUP’s total of 28, as unionism lost its Stormont majority.

As the first anniversary of the Assembly collapse nears, its return seems no closer.

A series of deadlines have come and gone with the DUP and Sinn Fein deadlocked around issues such as the Irish language, legacy and equality.


Eighteen months after the seismic vote that saw the UK opt to leave the EU, the reverberations of Brexit are still being felt.

It continued to dominate an already packed political agenda in Northern Ireland during 2017.

As the year drew to a close the Irish border — the only land point where the UK will meet the EU — became a key issue. The Government believes that Brexit means leaving the customs union and single market as well as the EU.

Northern Ireland will have different trade rules to Ireland, and Britain’s desire to control migration needs a border.

However, the Irish Government and nationalists are vehemently opposed to any return to a border.

The issue was resolved — for now — when Theresa May struck a last-minute deal with the EU earlier this month to move on to phase two of the negotiations. It was agreed there will be no “hard border” with Ireland; and the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU will be protected. The so-called “divorce bill” will be between £35bn and £39bn, Downing Street sources say.

The European Commission president said it was a “breakthrough” and he was confident EU leaders would approve it.

DUP becomes partner in power

Northern Ireland went to the polls for the second time in three months in June after the Prime Minister called a snap election.

Theresa May had stunned the political world by calling the election, saying the UK needed certainty, stability and strong leadership.

In the end it delivered anything but.

Pundits had suggested the Conservatives would be returned with a commanding majority.

However, as the polls closed on June 8 and the votes were counted, it became clear that Mrs May’s great gamble had backfired.

The Conservatives lost 13 seats, wiping out their already slim Commons majority.

In Northern Ireland the DUP won 10 of 18 seats, Sinn Fein won seven, and independent unionist Sylvia Hermon retained her seat. The SDLP and UUP were wiped out.

Political veterans such as Tom Elliott, Margaret Ritchie and Mark Durkan were among those who lost their seats.

The Tories remained in power as a minority Government after securing a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP.

Under the deal DUP MPs will vote with the Government on the Queen’s Speech, the Budget, and legislation relating to Brexit and national security, while Northern Ireland will receive an extra £1bn over the next two years.

Rory McIlroy weds

A string of celebrities descended on Cong in Co Mayo in April for the wedding of Rory McIlroy and Erica Stoll.

Singers Ed Sheeran and Chris Martin, 50 Shades Of Grey star Jamie Dornan, and One Direction’s Niall Horan were said to be on the guest list.

The wedding took place amid tight security in the grounds of Ashford Castle.

McIlroy was previously engaged to tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, but the couple split in May 2014.

He reportedly began his relationship with Erica Stoll later that year. The couple became engaged in December 2015.

Afterwards, the Holywood-born star described his wedding as “the best weekend of his life”.

“It was awesome, it was the best weekend of my life and hopefully of Erica’s as well,” he said.

“It was really cool. We tried to keep it as private as possible, it was between our friends and families and we didn’t really want anything else.

“It was a weekend of celebrations. We had a welcome reception on the Friday, the whole wedding day on the Saturday and a farewell brunch on Sunday.

“We spent three really nice days with the people we cherish the most and that was really special.”

Dean McIlwaine search

In July hundreds of people joined the frantic search for missing Dean McIlwaine — but it ended in tragedy.

The 22-year-old was last seen in the Carnmoney Road area of Newtownabbey on July 13.

His body was found 10 days later in north Belfast by volunteers taking part in a massive search.

On July 27, in the shadow of Cave Hill, where Dean died a solitary death, hundreds of people gathered to say their final goodbyes.

A minister warned mourners that it was possible that Dean’s devastated family might never know what led to his death, which police said they were not treating as suspicious.

Rev John Dickinson recalled a popular young man. “He was soft-hearted in many ways, and when you got to know him it was hard not to love him,” he added.  “He was held in high esteem by everyone who knew him and he had a great sense of fun.”

Dean’s heartbroken girlfriend also sent a poignant farewell message.

Demi-jo McMahon said: “I want you to know that I will never stop loving you.

“I miss you every single day and I long to be with you.”

Dean had planned to open his own barber’s shop in Glengormley. The McIlwaine family later carried out his wishes by opening the business.

End of the Frampton fairy tale

This was a year to forget for Carl Frampton, who suffered his first professional defeat and later parted company with mentor Barry McGuigan.

It started badly when Frampton lost the WBA featherweight title to Leo Santa Cruz in Las Vegas in January.

The Mexican won on points at the MGM Grand Garden Arena to avenge his defeat six months earlier.

Frampton’s scheduled comeback fight in late July with another Mexican, Andres Gutierrez, was postponed at the 11th hour after his opponent was injured when slipping in a hotel shower.

Less than a month later, Frampton announced his split with McGuigan, his long-time manager. In November it emerged Frampton was facing legal action from Cyclone Promotions, his former trainers and promoters.

Cyclone Promotions said its claim related to a “breach” of a promotional contract.

Solicitors for Frampton said he would defend the action “rigorously” and counter-claim “on a number of grounds”.

After being out of the ring for 10 months, Frampton won on points in his comeback fight against Horacio Garcia in Belfast on November 18.

He is due to fight again in Belfast on April 7, ahead of a world title bout at Windsor Park in the summer.

He can only hope 2018 holds better prospects than the past year.

Hurricane Ophelia

It was the day that Northern Ireland shut down.

On October 16 the region was  hit by the remnants of Hurricane Ophelia, which travelled from the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean. It was the worst storm in recorded history on the island of Ireland.

Across the province schools, shops and workplaces all closed as people took shelter from the violent wind and rain.

More than 50,000 homes and businesses were left without electricity. Numerous roads were blocked by fallen trees, while some seaside homes were evacuated. For the first time in recorded history the Courts Service closed all its offices.

Former US President Bill Clinton also cancelled a whistle-stop visit to Belfast because of the weather. An economist suggested the day of chaos could cost the Northern Ireland economy up to £30 million.

The Republic was worst hit, with three people killed and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar describing it as a national emergency.

It was the second time the weather brought chaos to Northern Ireland. In August more than 100 people had to be rescued after being trapped by flash flooding, with counties Londonderry and Tyrone worst affected. The August floods saw almost two-thirds of the north west’s average monthly rain fall in a single night.

Rogue Marine Maxwell jailed

In July a Royal Marine who supplied bombs to dissident republicans was jailed for 18 years.

Ciaran Maxwell stashed anti-personnel mines, mortars, ammunition and 14 pipe bombs — four of which were later used — in 43 purpose-built hides at eight locations in Northern Ireland and England.

The 31-year-old, originally from Larne, was with 40 Commando based at Norton Manor Camp in Taunton, Somerset, at the time of the offences.

He pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts between January 2011 and August last year, possessing images of bank cards for fraud and possessing cannabis with intent to supply. PSNI Detective Chief Inspector Gillian Kearney said Maxwell used his military know-how to accumulate and construct his devices, and described the infiltration of the military by a republican terrorist as “very unusual” and “certainly the first case of its kind in recent years”.

Sentencing, Mr Justice Sweeney said: “I’m sure that you were and will remain motivated by dissident republican sympathies and a hostility to the UK.”

Maxwell was handed an 18-year jail term, with another five years on licence.

The Old Bailey heard that the father-of-one researched targets and discussed plans to attack police stations and officers.

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