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Clean sweep: Renee Starbuck's shock at award honour for tireless work at Queen's

Renee makes new year honours list

Renee (Sarah) Starbuck, a long-serving employee of the University, recently won 'Cleaning Operative of the Year' in the Education category at the regional awards of The British Institute of Cleaning Science (BICSc), held in Belfast City
Renee (Sarah) Starbuck, a long-serving employee of the University, recently won 'Cleaning Operative of the Year' in the Education category at the regional awards of The British Institute of Cleaning Science (BICSc), held in Belfast City

By Christopher Woodhouse

This is the cleaner who will have another thing to polish thanks to the New Year honours list.

Sarah (Renee) Starbuck has been awarded the British Empire Medal for her work at Queen's University Belfast over the last quarter of a century.

"It came as quite a shock, but a pleasant one I would say, I was very surprised," Renee told Sunday Life.

"I'm just one of those people who is a cog in a big machine, I was just a cleaner in Queen's, that's all I was, I keep thinking, 'Why me'? I'm just an ordinary body.

"As it states, it is for everybody, so everybody has as much chance of being awarded something, depending on what they do in life.

"You try to help people and do what you can for people, [students] from all parts of the world come to where I am and they are just kids coming in and they're still pretty young, so wouldn't have the life experience yet, but they always come and see if you can help them and you do your best."

The south Belfast woman added: "That's all you can do in life, is to help somebody."

Renee (65) could only tell her immediate family about the honour ahead of the official announcement of the list of recipients on Friday night.

She joins the likes of local sporting legends Harry Gregg and Willie John McBride, as well as national stars like Sir Michael Palin and Twiggy, who has been made a Dame.

"It came from the Cabinet Office and the letter was sent on November 20," explained Renee.

"I told my husband and my immediate family, my son and my daughter, they ask you not to comment on anything until it's officially confirmed that you have received the honour."

Renee will be presented with the medal by the Lord Lieutenant of Belfast on April 1, but she's not worried about it all being an April Fool.

"That's what we thought when we read the letter," laughed Renee.

"It's hard to take in, I'm just an ordinary body, I'm nobody special.

"You work hard and hope for the best."

Renee worked at the university up until her retirement in October and said she never wanted to work anywhere else.

"I have worked at Queen's for 24 years, almost 25, the people who nominated me were the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work," she explained.

"They're good people to work for and it's interesting because you get to meet people from all walks of life.

"I'm officially retired as I had an accident and because of the circumstances, everything was up in the air, but they held a party for my retirement. It was very, very thoughtful."

It's not her first award, as she was named Northern Ireland Cleaner of the Year by the British Institute of Cleaning Science in September.

Among the 97 locals honoured in this year's list are Ulster Unionist MLA Andy Allen, who has been awarded an MBE for service to veterans and their families.

Heather Smart, the first female firefighter in Northern Ireland, will also receive the same honour for services to the advancement to women.

This year's oldest honours recipient in the UK is from Co Tyrone - 100-year-old Second World War veteran, Robert Lingwood, will receive a BEM for services to the community.

Former Manchester United goalkeeper, Harry Gregg, who is to receive an OBE, survived the Munich air disaster in 1958 and went on to play for Northern Ireland at the World Cup in the same year.

Northern Ireland footballer, Gareth McAuley, is bestowed with an MBE for his services to football in Northern Ireland. He scored the Green and White Army's first-ever goal at the European Championships in 2016 against Ukraine.

Willie John McBride, who captained the British Lions as well as being a star of Irish rugby, receives a CBE.

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