NORTH Belfast Sinn Féin Westiminster candidate John Finucane has said he will not be deterred by what he describes as a “very coordinated and sophisticated campaign” against him.
Banners targeting John Finucane and his family have been erected by unionists in recent days ahead of December 12 polling day.
The Lord Mayor sat down with the North Belfast News in Belfast City Hall with the election, local issues and a border poll all on the agenda.
“The banners are part of a very coordinated and sophisticated campaign designed to intimidate me, denigrate my family and my father’s memory and designed to deter me,” he explained.
“It is gutter politics of the worst kind and not something I am allowing to distract and deter me. I remain focused on delivering for North Belfast.
“It has generally been a positive campaign so far. The dynamic that this election transcends party politics is being received on the doors. That positive message about maximizing the Remain vote is being received very well.
“We are running a very positive campaign by looking to the future by delivering better for North Belfast. It is an area as the readers will know that has been left behind and has many challenges. I want to be an MP to get stuck into those challenges.”
Mr Finucane and his party have also faced criticism from opponents regarding Sean Kelly, the man convicted of the 1993 Shankill bomb, who has worked as a party canvasser in North Belfast. However, John Finucane pointed to remarks by leading victims’ campaigner Alan McBride, who lost his wife in the Shankill bomb, urging all political parties to be mindful of victims at election time.
“Alan McBride is one of the most impressive people that I have met. He is considerate and well-measured,” said John.
“His response to this debate is something everyone needs to listen to. I have and the party has, of being mindful and respectful of victims at election time. He has also called out the banners which are hurtful to those families who lost loved ones in the Shankill which I agree with.
“He also called out the DUP hypocrisy on this issue – a party which has convicted drug dealers canvassing for them, engages with active loyalist paramilitaries connected with offences up to and including murder this year. Alan has been a strong and reasonable voice in this debate and I welcome his comments.”
In an election that many see is about Brexit, Sinn Fein’s long-standing abstentionism policy at Westminster has once again surfaced but Mr Finucane is adamant protection for the people of Ireland does not come from the green benches of the House of Commons.
“It is an issue which has come up on the doors. Since the last Westminster election and the dynamic between the DUP and the Tories, there is absolutely no appetite by the British government to compensate or consider the impact of Brexit on the people of Ireland. It is not on their radar at all.
“The DUP got spectacularly thrown under the bus and showed that no matter what your constitutional aspirations are, the British government simply does not care if you live in this part of the world.
“Those who want to protect their European identity or voted to Remain – the protection is never coming from the green benches of Westminster. The protection comes from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste Simon Coveney and the EU 27 and in America, supported by Sinn Féin.”
John Finucane will contest a close-fought election contest with the DUP’s outgoing MP Nigel Dodds, someone many see as the chief architect of a hard Brexit.
“He (Dodds) would be proud of that title. He was part of the Vote Leave campaign. He has been the DUP head at Westminster and is proud of his Brexit record.
“The two defining political moments in my lifetime have been the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit and Nigel Dodds is on the wrong side of history in both of those. He continues to be opposed to the Good Friday Agreement and he continues to champion Brexit which goes against the majority of people’s views in North Belfast which is hopefully reflected on December 12.”
Looking at local issues affecting North Belfast, the Sinn Féin candidate wants to address food banks, the mental health crisis, housing and anti-social behaviour, amongst others.
“In North Belfast, we have food banks, a mental health crisis, reliance on prescription drugs, very toxic legacy from the conflict, suicide crisis particularly amongst our young people.
“I don’t want to refight old battles or use the past to poke my neighbour in the eye. People want to move forward with political leadership that can do just that.”
He said the DUP’s record on housing “is despicable”.
“They object to housing for reasons that can be interpreted as nothing short of sectarian,” he said. “This is the brand of politics I think North Belfast wants to turn its back on. Housing is a right that is founded and based on need and nothing to do with religion, who you vote for or ethnicity.
“North Belfast has a housing crisis – we are top of all the tables you don’t want to be top of and bottom of all the tables you don’t want to be bottom of. There are areas of land that need to be used for housing. There needs to be a major overhaul. We are up against a lot of opposition which the DUP are at the heart of.
“Mental health, bonfires and anti-social behaviour are all linked in many ways. It is no surprise that those involved in anti-social behaviour come from economically-deprived and challenging backgrounds.
“I was in the New Lodge this week and saw for myself the good work that is being done to remove people from engaging in anti-social behaviour. The community doesn’t want it. I think it was unfortunate this year to see the response of the police that eroded a lot of confidence from the local community.
“Hard work needs to continue all year around. Statutory bodies, police and council all have a responsibility too. There is a lot of positive work happening – one example is the Féile dance night which takes young people away from bonfires.
“From my day job as a solicitor, I know there are complicated reasons why people find themselves in the criminal justice system. The work has started and continues to operate all year around.”
Asked about a border poll, John was quick to urge caution.
“I don’t think we are ready for it tomorrow. The inevitability of a border poll is accepted and I say that, having listened to unionists. The mechanism is there in the Good Friday Agreement and we are close to the point when it will be called.
“Brexit has shown you need to be prepared for a referendum and people need to be clear what they are voting for and what they are voting against.”
2019 also saw John Finucane installed as Lord Mayor, becoming the First Citizen of Belfast after he was elected to Belfast City Council in May and he says he has been encouraged by the fantastic work he has witnessed right across the city.
“I was given advice from Tom Hartley who said you only think you know your city and he was absolutely right.
“I am from the best part of the city – North Belfast – but really I only knew it geographically. I have seen the fantastic work that goes on in communities across the city that I wasn’t aware of. None of it gets much attention but I am very encouraged by the vision for this city, which is happening North, South, East and West.”
As a former county footballer and the current goalkeeper for Lámh Dhearg, John suffered heartbreaking defeat in the Antrim Senior Football Final against Cargin last month.
“I have tried to make sure this defeat isn’t talked about again,” he says. “It was a tough one to take but a season that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
“We had some really good wins over Creggan and Portglenone but just came up short in the second final against Cargin after extra-time.”
The Sinn Féin man is determined not to come up short again when the votes are counted on December 13.