GAA Football

John Finucane explains dealing with murder of his father Pat and his first steps in the GAA

Solicitor, goalkeeper, politician and human rights campaigner.., John Finucane's life has never been straightforward. The former Antrim star spoke to Andy Watters about the murder of his father Pat and his passion for the GAA.

John Finucane combines politics and sport with his work as a busy solicitor in Belfast
Andy Watters

WHO’S going to walk through the door? The Antrim goalkeeper or the Westminster candidate? The ‘leave-the-talking-to-me’ solicitor who represents Carl Frampton in his legal battle with Cyclone Promotions? The next Irish President?

They all arrive at once, different parts of the same man and there’s plenty of John Finucane. The big guy shows up for our city centre rendezvous bang on time, suitless and unshaven, wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

What’ll he have? He’ll take a large tea.

“I’m a tea man,” says the 38-year-old with a smile and once it arrives we get down to talking. There’s a lot to cover.

The seeds of John’s parallel careers in the GAA and the law were planted by his late father Pat. The seeds for his blossoming career as a Sinn Fein parliamentary candidate and a possible runner for the Irish Presidency were planted by the men who murdered him..

Like John, Pat was a well known solicitor but, unlike John, he was what Gaels call ‘a soccer man’. In photos and TV footage, Pat looks square-jawed and fit, so it’s not a surprise to learn that he was a striker, and a very good one who banged in goals for Belfast club Malachians, then Trinity College Dublin and then Crusaders and Distillery.

Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane was murdered in front of his wife and three young children

Pat was good enough to play for an Irish League Select against a Scottish League Select that included future Celtic and Arsenal star Charlie Nicholas.

“He was a big Man United fan, which is where I got that curse from, and he was very much a soccer man,” says John, who was involved in Ulster finals at minor and senior level for Antrim.

“Not that he was anti-GAA, I just don’t think he ever really took to it and then when he went to Trinity and did well with the team there then that was him in soccer.

“He was very fit and sporty and my ma (Geraldine) would have run a lot as well so I was like a lot of kids, I got that sporting element from my parents.”

That sporting gene has been passed on to Pat and Geraldine’s grandkids. John’s 14-year-old daughter is in the Antrim panel and, like her dad and her grandfather, when she plays, she plays to win.

“She’s a sorer loser than me, if that’s possible,” John says with a proud smile.

Sadly his four kids didn’t get to meet their granda Pat. John was a couple of weeks away from his ninth birthday when his father, a high profile solicitor whose clients included several Republicans, was brutally murdered on a February Sunday almost 30 years ago.

“I knew my da as well as any eight year-old knows their da,” he says.

“I remember I would have kicked a ball with him in the back garden and gone to games with him.

“With his work I just remember how busy he was and the house was. It was before mobile phones, everything was landline so there was always people phoning the house.

“I got taught at an early age how to take a message and record a message and make sure you got it passed on. There was always a pen and paper beside the phone: ‘So-and-so phoned, here’s the number…’

“He was a messer as well, he was an absolute wind-up merchant and he would have been good craic and good fun. We would have gone off camping in France and Spain and he would have enjoyed a glass of wine and a kick-about.”

With the ddddrrrrriiiiiing of the phone a constant in the background, family life in the Finucane household carried on much the same as in any other home. But in the shadows Loyalist gunmen and British security forces were plotting Pat’s murder.

John’s world came crashing down in the blink of an eye.

“We were sitting down having dinner, everybody knows the way Sunday dinner goes,” he recalls.

“It was the five of us sitting down. There was a bang at the front door and my dad got up. The kitchen door was glass and he opened it and looked through.

“There were two gunmen who came down the hall. He was shot 14 times and my mother once and it was… It was as quick as that. It was as sudden and traumatic as that.

“I saw it all; we were all there and then we were brought out of the house to my grandmother’s. That was it and after it you’re just pretty much in a daze.”

Another woman left stunned and shocked and widowed, three more children left without a father in the Troubles having witnessed something no child should see.

For three decades now the Finucane family have focused on bringing those responsible for Pat’s murder to justice. And not just the men who pulled the triggers.

So far, the Pat Finucane campaign has forced the British Government to admit that agents of the state colluded in the killing and the family continue to lobby for a public inquiry into the case.

“We just started as a family asking questions,” John explains.

“There were so many obvious questions to ask from the outset because he had been threatened, there had been statements in the House of Commons which would have identified and singled him out.

“There were obvious questions to ask and once politicians and journalists started asking questions you realized just how dirty it was and not just regarding my father’s murder – there were so many people across the board that this affected.

“I’m proud of what we have done as a campaign.

“I think we have achieved an awful lot and I think that has been to the benefit of a hell of a lot of people because if we are moving on here (in the North) we need to know what happened.”

But how has John been able to deal with the trauma of seeing his father murdered? For him, “loss is loss and grief is grief” and, while he says: “it never leaves you” he has been able to come to terms with it.

“If my dad died of a heart-attack or in a car accident when I was eight, does that mean that it’s not as traumatic because he wasn’t shot? I’m not convinced on that,” he says.

“You could say that watching somebody die slowly through an illness would be harder? I don’t know; it’s a different philosophical debate. Life goes on and you have to deal with it.

“The circumstances for us meant that there was a very public nature to it, it was very brutal and we were all there when it happened. It obviously happened to many other families as well right across the board.”

And of course there is a price to pay for being part of a campaign that goes head-to-head with the British state. As a teenager making his way in the world of Belfast during the 1990s, John says he felt conscious of “being seen in certain way”.

“When you said the word ‘collusion’ you were looked at as a Republican sympathizer or a conspiracy theorist whereas now that term has been sanitized,” he says.

“Now it’s not a question that collusion happened but it’s: ‘Och it was an awful long time ago, it’s very disruptive to look into that, why don’t we focus on the future? We can’t keep digging up the past…’

“It’s a shift from: ‘This didn’t happen’ to ‘Well, it did happen but we all need to move on’. In the ’90s, when I was growing up north Belfast was still a dangerous place and people were being killed en masse – north and west Belfast took the brunt statistically over the course of the Troubles – and I was always conscious that being part of my dad’s campaign I was being seen in a certain way but thankfully we’re well moved on from those times.”

Belfast is a different place now and groups of tourists follow their guides on the busy streets outside as our conversation turns to football. You could say that sport is an irrelevance, given what we’ve been discussing, but not to John Finucane.

“It has always been massive and it still is,” he says.

As a youngster he put himself about out the field before some astute coach put his safe hands and his kicking ability together and threw him the number one jersey for an U14 game.

“Obviously I was useless outfield,” John says with a laugh.

But as game followed game he went from being held against his will between the posts to becoming king of the square. His form attracted the attention of the Antrim minor management and he got a place in the team for the 1996 Ulster Championship campaign.

The first game was an extraordinary outing in Ballybofey which ended in a 4-3 to 0-10 win for the young Saffrons whose goal-scoring ability at one end was underpinned by Finucane’s clean sheet at the other.

“Every time we attacked them we seemed to be putting the ball in the back of the net,” he recalls.

“We beat Cavan in Clones and we started the final against Tyrone like a house on fire. “We hit 2-1 in the first few minutes – they had Cormac McAnallen and Kevin Hughes in midfield and they came back to beat us and went on to the All-Ireland final.

“The following year we played them again in the final and they beat us a lot easier and went on and won the All-Ireland and that team grew to be the spine of their Sam Maguire-winning teams.

“I was hooked and obsessed from a very young age and I was lucky that I had that taste of a wee bit of success. I played U21 with the county and then I was studying in Dundee and I was able to continue the games over there.

Glory days. Finucane was skipper of Lamh Dhearg in last year's Antrim senior football championship

“I’m fairly impossible to be around when I’m not playing or training a couple of times a week. You need something! I hate running for the sake of it but if I’m running to get onto the team or get ready for the Championship, I’ll run all day.

“I need the team sport to get it out of me so I’m dreading the day when I’m told to stop bringing boots and gloves to matches.

“I think the body is starting to talk to me a wee bit but the older I’ve got, the more I’ve enjoyed it. The older I’ve got the less pressure I’ve put on myself. When I was in my 20s I would have been asking myself: ‘Am I good enough? Does the manager like me?’ All that, whereas now I just get on and I play.”

Football is one passion but there are many others. We haven’t touched on Antrim’s summer of 2009 that included the Ulster final and a clash with Kerry, last year’s North Belfast election or the possibility of the Sinn Fein nomination to stand as a candidate for the Irish Presidency.

We order another mug of tea and get down to it…

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