Sunday, March 3, 2024

Northern Ireland’s top 100 newsmakers of 2023, No 50-26

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Caramac bar

In November, Nestle confirmed it is discontinuing the caramel-flavoured bar after 64 years. The company said falling sales were behind the decision to cease production of the confectionery, launched in the UK in 1959 by original manufacturer Mackintosh. For fans, parting was such sweet sorrow, with some calling it a national scandal and urging the producers not to let it disappear. Though not technically a chocolate bar, as it does not contain cocoa, Nestle said the change would enable it to focus on its best-performing brands and develop ‘exciting new innovations’. Other former Caramac products included the 2005 Caramac Kit Kat and 2015’s Caramac buttons.


Shane Connolly

The past 12 months have been another memorable year for west Belfast professional florist Shane Connolly who had the honour of being involved in King Charles’s coronation. As part of a team of six, Shane worked on creating arrangements which incorporated more than 120 varieties of flowers, and boughs cut from flowering shrubs and trees from the five Royal Horticultural Society gardens. Championing British, seasonal flowers, he said his overall vision was that the display reflected the real characters of the King and Queen. A firm favourite with the Royals, Shane previously worked on the arrangements at Charles and Camilla’s wedding in 2005 and the Prince and Princess of Wales’s wedding in 2011.


Mark Huffam

The Ballyclare native was at the production helm of one of 2023’s most talked about films, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. This was not his first foray in epic filmmaking, having worked on blockbusters including The Northman, The Martian and Saving Private Ryan. Mark is also credited for helping to bring HBO and a certain series called Game of Thrones to Northern Ireland. The experienced film producer, who participated in a special Q&A ahead of Napoleon’s debut screening in the Strand Arts Centre, called Northern Ireland a centre of excellence within the film and television industry that is no longer a ‘quirky little country somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic’.


Steve Davis

When the Northern Ireland captain was named as Rangers’ caretaker manager in early October it meant that both Old Firm clubs were managed by men from Northern Ireland. Davis was not in the hotseat for long as the club brought in Belgian Philippe Clement to replace previous boss Michael Beale permanently, leaving Davis to concentrate on recovering from his cruciate ligament injury. Rodgers’s return to the Hoops meanwhile was announced in June and despite a strong start to the season, his Celtic team know they face a battle on their hands to hold off the challenge of Clement’s rejuvenated Rangers.


Brooke Scullion

Bellaghy-born singer Brooke Scullion started the year in the limelight as a contestant on the sixth series of RTÉ’s Dancing with the Stars. The bookies’ favourite made it to the final with dance partner Robert Rowinski and the duo finished as joint runners-up to Carl Mullan and Emily Barker. The 24-year-old former Eurovision singer later released singles Being Alone and Overload, and played various gigs including Dublin Pride and Dalfest at Glenarm Castle this summer. Brooke enjoyed that Christmas feeling earlier than most this year – speaking about Glastonbury, Brooke told Sunday Life: “It was absolutely unbelievable, it’s like Christmas for me. It’s honestly the best day of the year.”

45 Gene Simmons

Perhaps the unlikeliest team-up ever, the Kiss rocker was a special guest of the DUP’s Ian Paisley during a tour of Westminster in June. According to the North Antrim MP, Simmons displayed “a genuine interest both in the history and the theology” behind Northern Ireland and British politics, prompting the MP to then joke: “He’s doing a private concert as a DUP fundraiser — that’s a lie!” The music icon, who was in the UK for the band’s End Of The Road tour, said he had witnessed “controlled chaos” during his “insane” visit to the Houses of Parliament to watch Prime Minister’s Questions

44 Colin Murray

At the beginning of the year, national media reported that NI radio and TV presenter Colin Murray and his wife Carly had broken up after 11 years of marriage. Around that time, it was also announced that Colin was the new permanent host of Countdown. He had been fronting the gameshow since Anne Robinson stepped down in the summer of 2022. Channel 4’s head of daytime and features, Jo Street, said the broadcaster had “listened to fans” and made him the permanent host. After the news was announced on Steph’s Packed Lunch, Colin revealed it was “a career dream” for him.

43 Emma Vardy

This year has been an action-packed one for BBC journalist Emma Vardy. In May the former surf instructor announced her pregnancy news by sharing a photo on social media of her standing by a surfboard with a growing baby bump. Emma and her husband Aaron Adams welcomed son, Jago Fionn, in August. The family of three then moved to California when Emma secured a job as the BBC’s LA correspondent. Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last month, the new mother said: “Some people make you think travelling is over after having a baby: for us, it’s the opposite.”

42 Saoirse Monica Jackson

The Derry Girls star celebrated her 30th birthday last month with a party in Liverpool, joined by loved ones including her Scottish partner Denis Sulta and Derry Girls’ co-star Jamie-Lee O’Donnell. The actress who shot to fame playing teen Erin in Derry Girls, said she would love to revisit the role down the line and see what Erin’s up to in her twenties. While Jackson would love to see Derry Girls return, she’s enjoying her latest TV role starring as Bluebell in the “magical and creepy” period thriller The Doll Factory. She also starred in The Decameron Netflix series, which is set in Florence during the Black Death.

41 Madame Zhang

The Belfast-based Consul General of China caused a stir online when in February she posted on X (then Twitter) a false claim that a Chinese-built bridge withstood the devastating earthquakes in southeastern Turkey. The Chinese diplomat deleted the post the next day after it had been viewed more than a million times on the social media platform. That same month, she joked about a suspected Chinese spy balloon which was shot down over the US on orders from President Joe Biden amid tensions with Beijing. “Perhaps China was simply giving the US a balloon, much like one would give a child to make them feel better,” she posted on X. In November, she denied that there is a link between carbon dioxide and global warming ahead of Cop28, the climate summit which was held in Dubai, once again on X. The post attracted criticism from Alliance MLA Danny Donnelly, who remarked: “The scale of the challenge facing us in relation to climate change is so stark that it is extremely frustrating and disappointing to see these comments.

40 Lewis Boyle

The Ballyclare teenager became Northern Ireland’s youngest ever elected political representative at age 18, winning his Antrim and Newtownabbey Alliance seat just days before sitting his A-level Politics exam. He had to balance his exams study while campaigning for the local elections. Speaking after gaining his seat, he told media that he is keen to encourage more young people to get into politics. “In Antrim and Newtownabbey prior to [to getting my seat] 30% of the borough was under the age of 25, yet there was no political representation for that demographic,” he said.

39 Wallace Thompson

The DUP founding member sparked a huge political debate when he gave an interview to Belfast Telegraph’s Northern Ireland editor, Sam McBride in which he said a “new Ireland was inevitable”, adding that unionism was probably always doomed. The statement drew extensive scrutiny given it was not spoken by a moderate, but rather a staunch unionist. Mr Thompson (inset, left) also talked about hearing unionists privately thinking radically about the future, “but there are so few people willing to say that publicly”. In the illuminating interview, Wallace said that he regards himself as both British and Irish. “I was born an Irishman. And people in my community again say ‘oh no, no, no, we aren’t Irish’ — but we are Irishmen and it’s nonsense to believe we’re not,” he remarked.

38 Simon Hoare

After the November cabinet reshuffle, Mr Hoare, formerly chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee since 2019, was appointed to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Mr Hoare, the MP for North Dorset, worked in public relations in the 1990s. Earlier this year, Mr Hoare defended holding what were described as ‘secret talks’ with UVF and UDA figures to encourage them to buy into the post-Brexit trade protocol. Later, he told the Belfast Telegraph he had attended the meetings in a personal capacity, saying: “I was there to listen directly to a group of people in Northern Ireland who are so angry and frustrated. It was a listening exercise to help inform my understanding of a group of people who are hard to reach.”

37 Michael Magee

Fiction editor of magazine The Tangerine and a graduate of the PhD creative writing programme at Queen’s, the author published his debut novel, Close to Home, set in his native west Belfast, in April. In October, he was awarded the 2023 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature at a ceremony in Trinity College Dublin. The jury praised Close to Home for its ‘deep understanding of the craft of writing, its sensitivity to the power of place and its profound compassion for the survivors of personal and historical trauma’. Close to Home won Waterstones Irish Book of the Year — and it secured Sarah Jessica Parker’s vote as one of her top reads of 2023.

36 Charlie Lawson

The former Coronation Street star became the cover star of OK! Magazine in October when he married his partner of 22 years Debbie Stanley. They walked down the aisle before a gathering of star-studded guests at the lavish Shrigley Hall Hotel & Spa in Cheshire. The ceremony was officiated by Eamonn Holmes and Alison King (Coronation Street’s Carla Connor) was one of Debbie’s bridesmaids, while former Coronation Street actresses Kym March and Vicky Entwistle were also in attendance. Footage later emerged showing the Enniskillen man being the karaoke king at the reception. Weeks later, Charlie returned home, meeting the parents of Lisa Dorrian. He rallied behind the family’s quest for truth that began when the 25-year-old shop worker went missing from a caravan park in Ballyhalbert.


Dáithí’ Mac Gabhann

Northern Ireland’s most famous seven-year-old inspired a landmark organ donation law to come into effect in 2023. The young boy was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome and is increasingly reliant on a wheelchair and oxygen as his long wait for a donor continues. He has been on the heart transplant waiting list since 2018 and has campaigned tirelessly with his family to change legislation here around organ donation. Under Dáithí’s Law, all adults will be considered potential organ donors unless they choose to opt-out or are in an excluded group.

34 Holly Hamilton

The broadcaster stepped in for Stephen Nolan on BBC Radio Ulster this summer for three weeks while Nolan enjoyed a “well-deserved break”. Holly fronted the popular radio programme before handing over to her husband Connor Phillips who presents a mid-morning show featuring a mix of music, guests and callers. The couple recently enjoyed a trip to the Munich Christmas markets which was a surprise birthday gift from Connor, with Holly posting on Instagram: ‘I’ve always been partial to a Christmas market, giant steins of bier and sparkly pink unicorns so Munich was really a bit of me’.

33 Adam Smyth

It’s rare you’d hear the director of BBC NI reading the news bulletin but in May, Adam Smyth stepped in as journalists took part in 24-hour strike action. Smyth was only in the job one month, having been serving as interim director since December 2021. However, the events in May were only one of a series in which the new NI director was involved. These included Donna Traynor’s employment tribunal — she took a bias case against the BBC and Adam Smyth — and the cuts controversy at Radio Foyle in which its two-hour flagship programme was reduced to 30 minutes. North West Today was extended to an hour in November, it was announced.

32 Jamie-Lee O’Donnell

The Derry Girls actress told Shane Todd’s Tea With Me podcast that she’s not just got fans from her appearance on the show, but canny imitators. She said that many pretend to be her if they have a Derry accent and curly hair, leading to photographic appearances and complimentary beverages. And speaking of accents, in August, she spoke about the now positive benefits that her voice brings in terms of finding new roles. Speaking ahead of the praised second series of Channel 4 prison drama Screw, in which she plays Rose Gill, Jamie-Lee said, ‘I was told for so, so long that I would never get work in this accent. I was told it was too strong, too working class, too specific, that no one can understand it.’

31 Nadine Coyle

The Girls Aloud singer’s success in 2023 will continue into the new year when she returns with her fellow bandmates for the group’s reunion tour — which is stopping in Belfast and Dublin. Before then, the Derry-born singer was lamenting that some of her most favourite items on the KFC menu are not available in Northern Ireland as she is home for the festive season. In October, a TikTok creator made Nadine’s famous Pop Stars age ‘scandal’ go viral once again after performing a mini-musical of her passport saga during which she tried to get on the talent show when she was too young.

30 Kneecap

The controversial Irish hip-hop group has had a busy year, from filming with Michael Fassbender for a forthcoming movie, to unveiling a mural displaying the slogan “England Get Out of Ireland” ahead of their August Felie gig. The band, who were formed in 2017, made up of west Belfast natives Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap and DJ Próvaí, have built a reputation in recent years for producing controversial and creative music. In October, the group were back in the spotlight after a Dublin-based firm immortalised Kneecap in building block form, along with a flaming police Land Rover and mini petrol bomb accessory. The toy release prompted calls that it was “insensitive” and “sinister” amid threats to police officers in Northern Ireland.

29 Carl Frampton

It was a busy year for the former World Champion who launched his autobiography at the beginning of October. While Carl is known for many facets to his career outside being aligned to the McGuigan family, Carl Frampton: My Autobiography detailed how a great relationship went sour, and why those bridges can never be rebuilt. The book, which pulled no punches, also reflected Frampton’s feelings on the Twelfth of July celebrations and how he was fast-tracked to see the Queen lying in state in 2022. In September, he swapped risky business in the ring to whiskey business, launching Stablemate Irish Whiskey under his growing House of Jackal trade name.

28 Joe Kennedy III

The fifth Kennedy family member to serve as a diplomat/foreign envoy, Kennedy was named the special envoy to Northern Ireland for economic affairs. His focus is on advancing economic development and investment opportunities in Northern Ireland. He’s become a frequent visitor to the region, attending the NI Investment Summit and calling Queen’s University an ‘incredibly special place’ when he officially opened the new Students’ Union building. In October, Kennedy led a delegation of approximately 50 people, including representatives of Google and Microsoft, to a four-day trip of Northern Ireland and its potential investment opportunities.

27 Jonny Evans

In September, it was announced the defender had signed a one-year contract with Manchester United, having played for the club from 2006 to 2015. Two days later, he made his return debut against Arsenal as a substitute, later handed his first start of the season in a September game against Burnley, his 200th appearance for the club in all competitions. The Northern Ireland player was awarded an MBE in the 2023 Birthday Honours for services to association football in Northern Ireland. In October, he was presented with his 100th cap in front of a crowd of home supporters — his 104 appearances make him the fourth most capped player in Northern Ireland history.

26 Grey Squirrels

In November, DUP MP Jim Shannon likened grey squirrels to Palestinian terrorists. The remark was made during a Westminster debate on considering control of the grey squirrel population in the UK, with the politician saying the animals ‘are the Hamas of the squirrel world’. During the debate, Mr Shannon praised the Ards Red Squirrel Group, saying that volunteers “work tirelessly to protect the future of the red squirrel in my constituency of Strangford, particularly at Mount Stewart”.

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