In March 1990 there were extraordinary scenes outside the Dublin Supreme Court as two of the H-Block escapees were not extradited to the North. Dermot Finucane, was immediately released. He hopped onto the back of a motorbike and sped away. I can’t say I understood its significance at the time, either legally or politically, but I knew I was watching history.
I met Dermot a few weeks later, as I was involved in organising his first public speech. We had pitched the event, in the big lecture room in UCD’s campus as “H-Block escapees talk for first time”. Undoubtedly sensationalist and coarse in retrospect. During our chat Dermot mentioned his brother Pat’s killing. I look back at that moment now with regret. I was young and didn’t appreciate the enormity of his grief and how it was only a year and a bit since Pat Finucane had been brutally killed in his home. Dermot was to speak in UCD to nearly two thousand students, in trademark Finucane eloquence, charming the room and allowing a chink of light to greater understanding of a censored and diminished experience only 100 miles up the road. It was an unselfish speech that demanded fairness and attention to the violations that were escalating daily.
In the 29 years that has passed there has been a wealth of information released into the public domain about Pat’s killing, and the policies and practices behind it. Of course, it has been Geraldine Finucane with her family, Peter Madden and Jane Winter of British Irish Rights Watch at her side that has been to the forefront of absolute determination to ensure there is accountability for this state killing.
In 1989, it would have been impossible to predict that the son of this target for state assassination would one day be mayor of a city that was then the epitome of all that was wrong, intransigent and sectarian in the northern Six Counties. John Finucane witnessed the murder of his father and the wounding of his mother. He grew up with the campaign for truth and justice, not only for his own family but with the burden that so many families benefit from the uncovering of the truth behind the operation of collusion at that time.
And here today he stands. Elected for the ward where he witnessed such horror and lived with its aftermath, a partner in his own law firm, dignified and self-assured, representing all that has changed in our transitional society, and now the first citizen of Belfast. Surely it is difficult to think of a more remarkable or encouraging journey.
Sometimes remarkable moments go without enough attention or notice. When it involves party politics it can be taken for granted or even dismissed. When wider issues like the multi-party talks or European elections or Brexit gain so much focus, the important can go unnoticed.
The demographics of Belfast have changed utterly and with them the political environment. Belfast is a city that celebrates diversity and challenge. In John Finucane the unfinished journey from horror to vindication is personified, never neglecting the needs arising from our past, yet looking forward with confidence, building a better future.
This week his uncle Dermot tweeted with pride, “Like his father. Leading from the front for Equality, Justice and Respect for all.” Who could argue with that.