John Finucane discusses his Antrim days, the North Belfast election and talk of the Irish Presidency nomination
THE Belfast man was the topic of a conversation I overheard at an underage GAA blitz in Armagh.
“I see John Finucane’s up for President of Ireland now.”
“Aye, Sinn Fein are talking about nominating him for it.”
“Pat Finucane’s son?”
“He played for Antrim.”
“Oh aye… He’d be a good man for it.”
Many Gaels will view Finucane as one of their own. A chip off the old block with a new vision. A man of the modern world rooted in the GAA.
He divides his time between his family, his club and his legal practice and it’s a surprise to learn he hadn’t always intended to follow in his father Pat’s footsteps by qualifying as a solicitor.
“People probably think I was always going to go into law but I wasn’t,” he says.
“I thought about teaching and journalism. I thought I could do a law degree because it wouldn’t stop me doing something else and I worked in Madden and Finucane to see if it was something that I actually liked. I enjoyed it and in my early 20s I made the decision to get qualified.
“You get exposed to so much and that’s the part of the job I like, it’s why I decided to be a solicitor and not a barrister because you’re dealing with clients more and you’re at the coalface of it.”
Christmas, New Year’s, weekends… He has spent them all in with clients in custody, working away behind bars until the wee small hours. But that’s alright with him.
“I like police stations,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders.
“I seem to have a sick attraction with going to police stations and dealing with people there. I enjoy the adversarial nature of it.
“The most common question I get asked is: ‘How can you represent someone who you know is guilty?’ I firmly believe that rights are there for absolutely everybody and people need to have their rights protected.
“It would naïve of me to say that my own father’s case hasn’t had an effect on me and while policing is a different animal now, people still need protecting, particularly when they’re in custody which is when they’re at their most vulnerable.”
When he’s not in a police station he can often be found wet, cold and mud-splattered up in the Belfast hinterland of Hannahstown training or playing for Lamh Dhearg. Nowadays the club is his entire football focus, but he had a long career with the Antrim seniors beginning with a call-up from then-manager Brian White and including stints under Mickey Culbert, Jody Gormley, Liam ‘Baker’ Bradley and finally Frank Dawson.
With Sean McGreevy and Paddy Murray jostling for the number one jersey (if there was one), he didn’t make his Ulster Championship debut until May 21, 2006.
It was a rainy day in Enniskillen. A day never to be forgotten (and not for footballing reasons).
“Paddy Murray was wearing a Dublin jersey because our goalkeeper jersey was green and it clashed with Fermanagh and there wasn’t another one,” he recalls.
“Half the team was wearing Bushmills and the other half was wearing a jersey with a different sponsor. It was a shambles.
“There was a downpour, the worst weather ever, the match probably shouldn’t have gone ahead. Paddy got injured at the start of the second half and I came on. It took him about three minutes to peel the Dublin jersey off because all I had was a fleece which weighed about three stone at that stage because it was so wet. We weren’t allowed in the dugout because there was Antrim County Board members in there – they didn’t want to get wet.
“The subs had to stand out in the rain.
“I came on and they said: ‘Sure wear your fleece’ but I could barely walk in it. Paddy got the wet jersey off eventually and the crowd were laughing at us. I was nervous coming on for the Championship anyway and first thing I had to take a kick-out.
“I set the ball down and thought: ‘Just boot this as hard as you can’. I booted it, thankfully it went up the field but I slipped and landed on my arse. The crowd were pissing themselves. Next day the BBC news totally took the mickey out of Antrim and the jerseys and it was ‘Let’s hope there are no more slip-ups’ and a picture of me slipping and going on my arse.
“But I had a decent game, I made a good save. Anyway they beat us by three or four points and we went back to the dressingroom. One of the county board men came in and handed me my trainers and says ‘thanks very much’. He had come into the dressingroom and took them.
“He took his own shoes off so they wouldn’t get wet and wore my trainers. He gave them back to me soaking and covered in muck. I had nothing to wear home.
“Paul Doherty had a spare pair of shoes, he’s six-four and I was wearing these big clown shoes coming out. We still have a laugh about that and that’s what you miss about it.”
Those farcical days were replaced by an all-too-brief period of success three years later when Liam Bradley grabbed the Antrim panel by the scruff of the neck and shook it into shape.
To the amazement of the rest of the province, the Saffrons made it to the Ulster final in 2009 and Finucane would have been in the team but for breaking a finger before the Donegal game in the first round.
First choice McGreevy was injured early in that game and Peter Graham – the third choice ’keeper – did well enough to keep his place for the semi-final win over Cavan and the final against Tyrone.
“When you’re selfish about it you’re frustrated not to be playing, but the buzz around Antrim was class,” Finucane recalls of that summer run.
Defeat in the final was a disappointment but there was the consolation of a glamour draw with Kerry in the Qualifiers. Finucane started in Tullamore and his first half save from Darren O’Sullivan was part of a dogged effort from the Saffrons who kept pace with the eventual Sam Maguire winners throughout the game.
“It was good to get in,” he says.
“It’s nice to say I played against Kerry in the Championship.”
Antrim’s subsequent return to also-ran status has taken the sheen off it though. Finucane and his team-mates didn’t want 2009 to be ‘just that one time’ but that’s exactly what it turned out to.
“I’ve always begrudged how Antrim can be seen as tourists – you’re allowed into the party for one day, you’re allowed one Ulster final but that’s it – get back in your box,” he says and he feels that the condescending remarks made by Kerry manager Jack O’Connor was typical of the attitude of the rest of the country towards the plucky, but beaten, Saffrons.
“He came into the changing room afterwards and started going on about how great it was to play Antrim because his son wanted a shirt – he loved the yellow shirt,” says Finucane.
“I remember thinking: ‘The cheeky b*****d’. It was massively patronizing and I regret not telling him at the time what I thought. I should have told him to get out of the changing room.”
Finucane played in the Division Three final in Croke Park in 2010 but was dropped by Bradley the following year when Antrim struggled to make a mark in Division Two in 2011. The brief Saffron rising went into a decline that has, apart from an occasional stirring, continued to this day.
Finucane reappeared briefly in county colours when Frank Dawson took over as manager but injuries limited his involvement. A tailor made training programme, designed after consultation with former SAS officer, has allowed him to extend his club career and last year – his 22nd in senior football – Lamh Dhearg finally won the Antrim championship.
“It was a dream,” he says.
“I’ve been playing senior football since I was 16 and it was one hard luck story after another and last year we came out of nowhere to win the championship.
“We got a taste of Ulster (the club championship) and Cavan Gaels put manners on us.
“One of the umpires in that game – on one of the rare occasions the ball was in the Cavan half – said to me ‘This must be bonus territory for you?’ I probably should have just agreed with him but I said: ‘No, we trained hard for this’.
“It was maybe a lack of experience and Cavan steamrollered us in the first 15 minutes. “They were too strong and having players that had played Ulster club football made the difference. We spoke about it afterwards and said: ‘We got tanked today, but let that hurt you and if you want more of this it’s up to the people in this room to kick on and get it.’
“You don’t want to look back on it, like Antrim in 2009, and think ‘yeah, remember the time we did that’. You want more of it.”
Of course it was far from the only outlet for Finucane’s “competitive side”. He was chosen as Sinn Fein’s candidate to run in North Belfast in last year’s Westminster election. Finucane’s broad appeal saw him poll 19,159 votes, more than the DUP’s Nigel Dodds had needed to win the seat in 2015. Dodds held on but the constituency is no longer a DUP banker.
“I suppose there’s an argument to say that the Pat Finucane campaign is political,” he says.
“That’s something that I’ve grown up with and I’d be naïve to think that hasn’t had an impact. Running in North Belfast came out of the blue. Teresa May called a snap election which took everybody by surprise so I can thank her for it. Politically I was lucky enough because it was after the bounce of the Assembly in March which was a very positive election.
“I was able to go and knock doors and say ‘this is what you can do’ and it was a very positive campaign. I enjoyed it. Again my competitive side I was gutted that I didn’t get the seat, that I didn’t win. But then when you take a step back you realize it was such a great vote that came out.
“Possibly people will look at North Belfast as a seat that could potentially go rather than it being a safe DUP seat.”
Since then Finucane has emerged as a contender to run for Sinn Fein in November’s election to decide the next President of Ireland.
“It’s completely humbling to be linked with it,” he says. I don’t think anybody sits down and says: ‘I’d love to be President of Ireland’.
“It’s flattering to have your name put to it but the party will take their own view as to who gets the nomination.
“I’ve had a bit of stick because my name is in the odds with the bookies (he’s the 10/1 third favourite with some) and I’ve had mates asking: ‘Should I stick a few quid on you?’
“Michael D Higgins has been there and seems to be very popular, so whoever runs will have a tough race against him.
“It’s a pity that I can’t canvas for whoever is nominated locally or anywhere in the six counties because we don’t have the vote but I’m sure I will be involved no matter who it is.”
For someone who has mixed in the circles he has and been exposed to the experiences and situations he has, he remains remarkably unaffected. An ordinary guy doing extraordinary things.
Still it seems a long way from drinking tea in Belfast to taking up residence in Phoenix Park.
“We’ll do our next interview in the Aras,” he says with a smile.
See you there John.