Ciarán, a friend from West Belfast, tells a story about the 2011 local council elections. The candidate from the Éirigí (an anti-peace Republican party) knocked on his door.
“Ciaran, mo chara. You will vote for me.”
“What are your policies?”
“Well, I’m a former political prisoner.”
“Everyone here is a former political prisoner.”
“I’m against Stormont.”
“I understand that, but what are your guidelines?
“I am against the cuts.”
“What cuts? And how would you replace them?”
“C’mon until I tell you, Ciarán – if that’s your attitude, you can go and fuck yourself.”
John Finucane walks into the Chester bar, puts out his hand and says, ‘Hello, I’m the MP for North Belfast’ (big laugh). He sits down, two pints are ordered and off we go. When John became Lord Mayor of Belfast in 2019, his secretary had to look into it Antrim GAA Play every week to ensure no official commitments clash with Lámh Dhearg games. He comes to meet me fresh from his club’s goalkeeper against Tír na nÓg.
Q: “How was the game?”
A: “Boring. All short kick-outs. Here, you can’t print this – I’m in trouble with the manager.”
Q: “Don’t worry, I won’t. The GAA is a big part of your life?”
A: “It teaches us how to behave. I’m just one of the guys. It connects us. Keeps us grounded. Teaches us empathy. to take care of others. That’s a great thing.”
His mother, Geraldine Elizabeth Mawhinney, is a Protestant from Strandtown, east Belfast, and his father, Pat, is a Catholic from Sevastapol Street near the Falls. Pat was the first person on the street to go to college. In 1969 it was courtesy of the 1947 Education Act Trinity College Dublinwhere Miss GE Mawhinney also studied.
As a soccer star, he won the Universities Collingwood Cup, and their eyes met across the crowded bar at the post-game celebrations. Shortly thereafter they married in Dublin. “Otherwise their two worlds would never have collided,” says John. “A middle-class Protestant from East Belfast and a working-class Catholic from Falls Road didn’t want to meet at a dance hall in the Cregagh.”
On August 5, 1969, while Pat was at Trinity, Protestant mobs, escorted by the police, evicted 1,500 Catholic families from their homes in the Falls and burned every home on Bombay Street. The house of the Finucane family on Sevastopol Street burned down and they moved to Lenadoon.
When the young couple graduated, they lived in Belfast. Pat started a law firm that is still thriving today. Geraldine worked in her family’s law firm. They had three children – Michael, Catherine and John. They decided not to have the children baptized and not to have religion in their lives.
They wanted children to make up their own minds about the world.
February 12, 1989
“We had dinner on Sunday. There was a loud bang. My father got up and went to the door into the hallway. Two men with guns came in. They were wild and determined. They shot him as they came in. Then they stood over him and shot him several times. It wasn’t like seeing danger and arming yourself. It was like riding in a daydream when suddenly a car came at you from the side. They walked quickly but calmly, and that stayed with us for the rest of our lives.”
His mother was shot in the foot while trying to save her husband. In the footage of the funeral, she walks on crutches.
John was eight years old. Today he says: “My father was the love of her life. She was only 38. She never went back into a relationship.”
I can feel myself rising, so let’s stop. It’s unbearably poignant.
Q: “Do you remember her grief?”
A: “She protected us from that.”
A: “She kept up our normal routine. We were straight back to school.”
Q: “Do you remember that?”
A: “I remember her ironing the uniforms, methodically and carefully. My first morning back when I put my sock on I felt something lumpy in it and pulled it out. I said, “What’s that, Mammy?” She took it from me and said, ‘That’s fine son. Don’t worry about it’. It was one of the spent bullets. It must have ended up in the pile of hangers in the basket.” He takes a sip of his pint, shakes his head and says, “He was murdered about 200 yards from where we’re sitting now.”
July 21, 2002
It was a very hot Sunday. John was a senior goalie for St Enda’s. They had a home game, but the opponent shouted. They trained instead and then went to the club to watch The Sunday game. Then the boys made their way to North Belfast.
Q: “Tell me about that night.”
A: “I was driving down the North Circular a few hundred yards from here when two of the team, Kevin McKeown and Kevin Rogan, waved me down and asked for a ride to Chester. I said, ‘F**k me boys, it’s a beautiful night. The walk will do you good’, and continued. Two minutes later, a guy pulled up on a motorcycle and opened fire on them as they walked.”
Q: “Were they hit?”
A: “Amazingly not. It was like that scene in pulp fiction. They couldn’t believe it themselves.”
Shortly after, Gerard Lawlor, the tall midfielder on the team, was walking home after his few pints when a moped pulled up next to him and two gunmen shot him dead. They knew the boys were Catholics because they were traveling. Gerard was 19. He was the last Catholic civilian to be killed in the riots.
Q: “You could have easily been killed that night?”
A: “I’ve thought about it. Funny thing. I’ve always felt safe. Like I’m living in the midst of a big, friendly crowd.”
Something is different about John. A feeling that life should not be taken too seriously. I can’t believe he’s so successful. I wonder out loud if there’s a connection between his father’s murder and this composure, but he just shrugs and smiles. He says: “As sense fine Returning Officer, I must always be positive.”
Q: “You’ve lived an impeccable life aside from the occasional pee in an alley?”
A: (Big laugh) “That was a complete lineup. It was intentionally leaked to the media.”
In 2019, after his election as mayor, he was caught just outside his office. A cop spotted him peeing in the alley and made the front pages.
Q: “Did you take it in good spirit?”
A: “What was funny about it wasn’t the number of guys who said, ‘We’ve all been there,’ but the number of women who walked up to me on the street and said, ‘We’ve all done it, son.’ “
He is puzzled by the demonization of Sinn Féin, calling it “dishonest and cheap”. He giggles at a Dr. Harold News tweet: “Following the discovery that Mary Lou has sued RTÉ for alleged defamation in the High Court, RTÉ has announced that they will be temporarily postponing today’s broadcast of ‘Top 100 Reasons Not To Vote Sinn Féin’.”
Q: “Surely this demonization will stop in time?”
A: “One might think that the Good Friday Agreement was signed yesterday. All we hear is IRA, IRA, IRA, IRA.”
Q: “Much suffering has been inflicted”
A: “It was. Realizing that is crucial and we need a proper legacy structure. But using it for cheap points is dishonest. When I talk on the radio about the plans for a new glider bus system in north Belfast, I’m asked if I have anything to say to the innocent victims of an atrocity committed by the IRA which marks the 50th anniversary of today. I was at Dundee University when the peace accord was signed. I had nothing to do with the IRA. How should I respond? ?
Q: “What is the solution?”
A: “Stop being dishonest. If I heard someone throw my father’s name at a unionized politician to make a cheap point, I would let them know. “What do you tell Pat Finucane’s family?” would make my stomach turn.
Q: “What about the DUP?”
A: “They won’t even commit to going into government after the election. Your only message is if you don’t vote for us, you get Sinn Féin/IRA. Like damn hell. We have people who cannot heat their houses. A grandmother who goes to bed at 5 p.m. to keep warm. queue in front of the blackboard. But whatever. There are posters of me and my father on the Shankill, dripping with blood. Evil, murderous Shinners. The outrage is fabricated.”
Q: “To explain.”
A: “Grief is not like that. They’re just using past events to shake people up. I could easily say, ‘Wait a minute, I watched my father get killed in front of me. How dare you!’ That would stop anyone, but it’s completely dishonest.”
Q: “Why don’t you say that?”
A: “Because it has nothing to do with it. Either I am honestly arguing politically or I am not. We have a real political task to do.”
At this point, Mal O’Hara (an openly gay Green Party candidate) and Carl Whyte (of the SDLP) come over to say hello. I ask Mal if he saw it Don’t look up on Netflix. He says, “Joe, I only watch drag queens on Netflix.” It provokes a lot of laughter. Another round is coming.
Q: “Will the DUP have to face reality sooner or later?”
A: “Yes. The importance of this election is that sectarianism must be rejected by the majority of parties. The fact that Doug Beattie is turning the UUP into a progressive, politics-based party is great. But it’s no use if people support him reject the election.”
Q: “But the UUP will not commit to serving in government if a Sinn Féiner is First Minister.”
A: “Doug can’t commit to that in advance or he’ll be labeled a traitor and Lundy. It’s crazy. But that is the north.”
He is amused that while the nationalist community shunned the groups and parties opposed to the peace process (Éirigí, Republican Sinn Féin, etc.), the DUP, which opposed the Good Friday Agreement and never signed it, is still the main union party Peddling fear and acting like problems are in full swing.
But he’s optimistic. He loves how multicultural Belfast has become. The potential of the island is “enormous”, he says and is pleased about the number of young, talented people of all stripes and parties who are politically involved here. “People are rushing. It is politics that lags behind. We are on the threshold of something very special in this place. Very special.”
I stop the tape. We drink our pint laughing. That’s the effect he has on people. He thanks the staff and leaves – as always, he looks like he knows something the rest of us don’t.
I sit there for a while and think about him walking through the old killing fields that claimed his father and teammates, and for no particular reason I suddenly feel very hopeful for the future.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/north-is-bonkers-but-better-days-are-coming-joe-brolly-sits-down-with-sinn-feins-john-finucane-41604277.html “The North is crazy, but better days are coming” – Joe Brolly sits down with Sinn Féin’s John Finucane