Belfast Telegraph

John Finucane on being 'Lord Mayor for all', reaching out to unionists, his dad's murder and GAA heroics

Lord Mayor John Finucane on the Oldpark Road in Belfast
Lord Mayor John Finucane on the Oldpark Road in Belfast
Close: Belfast Lord Mayor John Finucane with mother Geraldine
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

As Lord Mayor of Belfast, John Finucane has a hectic schedule. Take the last couple of weeks, which has brought a visit to Boston, a six-hour City Hall meeting, and the usual packed diary of engagements.

He could be forgiven for looking forward to the weekend for a chance to relax.

Except he won't, because tomorrow he will be lining out for Lamh Dhearg in the Antrim Senior Football final.

Welcome to the world of Belfast's First Citizen.

Finucane is goalkeeper and captain of Lamh Dhearg. He was in goal on September 26 when they faced Casements Portglenone in a replayed semi for a place in the final - hours after he stepped off a plane from meetings in Boston.

The visit was in his role as Belfast's Lord Mayor, a position, he says later in this interview, which is not in the gift of Sinn Fein, but to represent all of the city.

He made it from the airport to the GAA field for the game, which was drawn, leading to a second replay last Monday night in Ballymena.

At 5pm he was getting agitated while attending an event relating to his late father before making a dash up the road. This time they had enough to see off Casements at the third attempt.

Tuesday morning began with an early gym session to loosen the limbs before a series of engagements throughout the day, nipping back and forth to his own solicitor's practice in Finucane Toner to tie up loose ends.

In the evening the mayoral chain weighed heavy through a marathon six-and-a-half-hour meeting of the City Council.

In action as goalkeeper for Lamh Dhearg
In action as goalkeeper for Lamh Dhearg

That is his life.

Tomorrow he will lead out the Hannahstown club to the Antrim county final in Corrigan Park against Erin's Own of Cargin.

He is 39 now, the same age his father Pat was when he sat down for a Sunday lunch in February 1989 with his wife Geraldine and children Michael, Katherine and John, the youngest just eight.

Two masked gunmen broke down the front door and while Pat made for the hallway, the bullets flung him back into the kitchen, also catching Geraldine.

The three children hid under the table as the shots rang out and filled the house with smoke, panic, noise. And then silence.

Fourteen rounds were discharged, killing the solicitor and opening up a 30-year quest for justice and the pursuit of a public inquiry that has never been granted, despite a public and private apology from then Prime Minister David Cameron in 2011.

Pat Finucane
Pat Finucane

"We were having Sunday lunch," John says now with a slight detachment that comes from telling a horrendous story often. "Like hundreds and thousands of families across Ireland, sitting down to their table having Sunday dinner, and then two gunmen came into the house, into the kitchen. My father was killed in front of us all."

Geraldine was left without a husband. The three children were left without a father.

But the more they found out, the murkier it gets - with double agents and paid informers, and the stench of collusion between police and security forces.

Through it all, Geraldine held the family together.

"By the time I was 16, 17, I had lived longer without a father than with. And everything that came along with the publicity and the attention that my father's case received... from very early on, it became my normality," John added.

"It wasn't unusual for me to come home from school and there would be a delegation of US lawyers looking to speak to my mother and with us about the case, or travelling to London or Geneva to meet with people in the United Nations.

"But first and foremost I am very proud to be the son of Pat Finucane. I think, especially going into law as well, I can only imagine the atmosphere in which he professionally worked and lived his life.

"Thankfully, lawyers don't have to go through that now but it is something I have always felt important. That has not come just from a personal point of view, but as the years have gone on it's quite clear that this represented more than the killing of one person.

"The British Government wouldn't be throwing the resources they have thrown at us for over 30 years if they were solely trying to protect what they did on one occasion."

The family have refuted the reports and investigations to date, having been excluded from participating.

The Lord Stevens Report was compromised the night that Brian Nelson - an MI5 agent who recruited loyalist Ken Barrett, an RUC paid informant who admitted to the offence - skipped the country and a fire destroyed documents relating to the report.

Since then there have been numerous frustrations, up until this February when the Supreme Court ruled that investigations had not been effective and urged a public inquiry that has stalled.

The murder of Pat Finucane was the sort of atrocity that held up a mirror to society. He and Geraldine were from different backgrounds - he a working-class lad from the Falls whose brothers joined the IRA, she a middle-class unionist from the Upper Newtownards Road - who met while studying in Trinity and married before moving back to a Belfast that had escalating violence.

It is different now. John Finucane will stand for Sinn Fein in North Belfast in the next general election, expected imminently, but in the meantime has risen to the demanding role of Lord Mayor.

He added: "I don't say it to elicit any sympathy, because it is a position that I had no connection with in a building I had no connection with. Growing up, it was very much a closed shop and you wouldn't be able to sit on the grass outside City Hall, let alone feel that you had any connection with what was going on inside.

"Whereas I think now that Belfast is a completely different city. Belfast is a different council and my role is very different to when I was growing up. I am very proud of that as well and it's great to see so much of Belfast."

Given his party politics, how is he received in unionist settings?

"At the start when I described myself as a 'mayor for all', I was asked how could you say that, how could you expect people to believe that?

"I would say back: 'Judge me by the end of my term'.

"And I was grateful, to be honest, to be able to show that on day one, when Prince Charles was coming into Belfast city centre to look at the Primark site where the fire was last year. And there were a number of opportunities I have had over the last year that I have taken.

"I think it is important that while we still live in a society where there still is a degree of suspicion, that whenever there are opportunities, especially in a role which is there to represent everybody, I would be quite firm that the role of mayor shouldn't be party-political.

"Obviously I bring my own politics to it, but it is not in the gift of Sinn Fein for the year; it is there to represent and show off the best of Belfast and I try to do it. It's up to others to judge how successful I am at that."

There are challenges. October 31 and the threat of a no-deal Brexit looms and concerns him. On Wednesday afternoon a German and Austrian media company arrived in Belfast to interview him about it. He adds: "Since the collapse of Stormont, and I think it can never be underestimated or downplayed, the confidence the people in the north get from the stance that the Dublin Government has taken and continues to take and that of the EU 27 countries in ruling out a hard Brexit and everything that comes with that and that infrastructure in Ireland [is reassuring].

"And that's where, certainly since the referendum in 2016, people have thought they'd seen chaos under Theresa May, but that has went to a new level since Boris Johnson went in.

"Not to sound flippant, but I am always reluctant to talk about Brexit if I haven't looked at the news in the previous hour as you could be way out of the loop because things are constantly changing."

With all that going on, he still has his eye on Sunday. His four children will be there to cheer him on. Piaras (16) is on the Ulster water polo team. His daughter Caoimhe (15) has followed him in football and plays midfield for Antrim under-16s ("she has my ability to be a bad loser and be very competitive"), and there's Oisin (8) and Eoin (8).

Football is a release, and yet he holds high office as the team captain for the last five seasons. The fatigue of three championship games in 10 days weighs heavy on them, but the Lamh Dhearg club is a special one.

"We are a good club. We are blessed with a lot of land, we have good facilities and fantastic people. The spine of our club, as everybody knows, it is what goes on in the background that drives a club on," he adds.

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