Interview with Geraldine Finucane: Breaking the glass ceiling

Geraldine Finucane, widow of murdered solicitor Pat Finucane, talks to Justine McCarthy about meeting her husband for the first time, why he was shot, and the death threats made against her during her 18 year campaign for an inquiry into what happened


Brian Nelson is dead. William Stobie is dead. Has Margaret Thatcher got much longer?” she calls back over her shoulder, padding in pink stockinged feet across the kitchen where her handsome 39-year-old husband was shot 14 times, and died still holding his dinner fork. She flicks on the light switch beside the door that connects the kitchen to the hallway. The sudden illumination in the winter's gloom shows that the door consists to this day of a full-length pane of glass; just as in the descriptions of the murder, when two loyalist killers burst through the front door on 12 February, 1989 and fired the first bullets into Pat Finucane's stomach and chest, through the glass panel.

“Eventually, they could say, ‘alright, you can have whatever inquiry you want now', and everyone would be dead and everything would be shredded,” Geraldine Finucane continues, joining the dots of a Machiavellian end-game scenario as she resumes her seat, tucking her feet tidily under her. The question she has been asked is if she believes that British security forces' collusion in the murder of her husband and others in Northern Ireland went all the way to the top: was Margaret Thatcher directing the Dirty War from her armchair in Number 10?

“As far as I know, Peter Cory [who investigated the case] did see cabinet papers and she was a very hands-on prime minister. She was very, very angry that Airey Neave [Tory spokesman on Northern Ireland] had been killed by the IRA so it wouldn't surprise me in the least if she was being informed of what was going on. We can talk about these things and we can make these suppositions but I would like the proof.”

The only way to acquire that proof, she believes, is by an independent judicial inquiry but what the British government has conjured up is a bespoke tribunal controlled by the cabinet, facilitated by the Inquiries Act 2005, which effectively empowers any government minister to block public scrutiny of state actions. Peter Cory, the former Canadian supreme court judge who, following his own investigations, commissioned by London, recommended a full-scale inquiry, and Lord Saville, who chaired the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, have condemned the act and said they would not sit on any inquiry set up under its provisions. Organisations like Amnesty International and the New York Bar Association have urged the British government to revert to the 1921 enabling legislation and the Finucane family has said it will not cooperate with an inquiry under the aegis of the Inquiries Act 2005.

“If members of the defence forces are involved in our case and the Minister for Defence can say to the inquiry, ‘you're not allowed to do this or that', how fair is that?” asks the murdered solicitor's widow. “This one clause whereby the government retains ultimate control over the tribunal is what we're taking issue with. We have always said we want an inquiry and we've always stated that we want only one inquiry and, therefore, we want the best possible method of getting to the truth. We feel what we're being offered at the moment does not give us that. It's not acceptable because it's unfair and it's very biased towards the government.

“It's not that we've been offered what we wanted and now we're just being thane (stubborn). We don't want to do what the Bloody Sunday people had to go through, having one inquiry and then having to have a second one. When Cory was given the task of examining this he was under the impression that he was looking at things under the existing legislation. Peter Cory was very upset because he felt he had been misled and used. He said in a letter to a [US] congressional hearing that it was like an Alice In Wonderland situation.”

Watching her as she talks, in slow, soft sentences, stooping occasionally to stroke Dali, a stereophonic-purring cat with an abstract-arty face – one half plain chocolate, the other half ginger – the thought registers repeatedly that they must have made a head-turning couple. He, purposeful and masculine in his familiar trench coat. She with her fragilely carved features and pale oriental-shaped eyes. The human tragedy of what happened here in this house is palpable.

The family was sitting down to dinner in the double-fronted detached red-brick they had recently moved to on Fortwilliam Drive, a somnolent leafy white-collar road in north Belfast. Geraldine and Pat and their three children, Michael (17), Catherine (12) and John (8). At 7.25pm, two masked men dressed in military-style camouflage jackets came crashing through the unlocked front door. The intruders yelled that they were IRA men, “here to take the car”. Pat Finucane started to approach the glass door from within the kitchen. “No, you're here to take me out,” he called back. They shot him three times through the door, before entering the kitchen and firing 11 more times into his prostrate body. Geraldine covered her head with her hands, a ricocheting bullet leaving a flesh wound on her ankle. Michael held his sister and little brother, his grip on them tightening with every shot.

Though she proves unexpectedly forthcoming in answering every other question – not even objecting to probes into personal areas that she had initially vetoed when arranging this interview – the night of the murder is the one subject she declines to discuss. “I just think it's a very personal thing and I really don't want... I don't see the need to talk about it,” she reasons. “People have very good imaginations. They can imagine.”

They had met in Trinity College Dublin as students in the late-1960s, an unsurprising venue for Geraldine as the daughter of middle-class Northern Protestants. She was studying English, philosophy and geography and “adored” Dublin; has done ever since. For Pat Finucane, the son of Belfast nationalists, growing up with two brothers destined to join the IRA and go to jail (one of them romantically involved with Mairead Farrell at the time she was shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar in 1988), Trinity was less familiar territory.

“He did English, French and philosophy. In those days, you didn't get your law degree the same way you do now. You did a general degree. Then you had to find yourself a master and go to Queens. He was supposed to get a dispensation from the bishop to allow him go to Trinity but I don't think he ever got it. We met through the football club.”

What was it you loved about him?

A meditative silence. “There was no one thing... I just loved him.”

They married after their graduation and, in 1979, Pat opened a legal practise in Belfast with fellow solicitor Peter Madden.

“When Pat and Peter went to the office in the beginning they probably had one client between them in a whole day,” she smiles at the memory. “They built up a reputation because they worked very hard. He really did work very hard,” she adds, as if truly realising it anew. “We didn't have an answering machine at that time and people would ring here seven days of the week. The children were all taught very young how to take a phone message.”

But Pat Finucane's skill at advocacy was winning the attention of more than prospective clients. According to Justin O'Brien's book, Killing Finucane: “He had successfully challenged the British government at the European Court of Human Rights over its incarceration policies in the mid-1970s. He had spearheaded the use of compensation claims in cases involving allegations of mistreatment and torture within interrogation centres. He was also instrumental in galvanising opposition to the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was facing a barrage of international criticism from human rights organisations.”

By bringing the 1982 murder of Gervaise McKerr to the European Court, he raised the temperature on the shoot-to-kill controversy. In November 1988, one of his clients, Patrick McGeown, was acquitted of all charges related to the mob-hysteria killings of two soldiers in Andersonstown during the funeral of one of Michael Stone's victims at Milltown Cemetery. In a 1992 interview with American lawyers, McGeown recounted that he was subsequently stopped by a police officer, irked at his acquittal, who told him: “Don't think you got away with that. We intend to make sure that you won't be about too long. And your mate Pat, we'll fix him too.”

Judge Cory's inquiry turned up several examples of the security forces in the North having knowledge of danger to Pat Finucane and failing to act. His wife looks back now and remembers the alarm she felt when she heard that the junior Home Office minister, Douglas Hogg, had engaged in felon-setting during a House of Commons debate in January 1989. “I have to state as a fact, but with great regret,” he told parliament, “that there are in Northern Ireland a number of solicitors who are unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA.” There was uproar, but never a retraction from Lord Hogg.

“Pat had been threatened,” Geraldine remembers. “When he went to Castlereagh holding centre to meet his clients they would say, ‘we'd better get a new solicitor because you're not going to be around' and ‘you're a thug in a suit'. They were the sort of things being said to them. It started very low level, slightly derogatory, and ended up as death threats. Pat thought they were interrogation techniques rather than being directed at the solicitor. But when Douglas Hogg said that it certainly made me stand back and look at things. Three to three-and-a-half weeks later, Pat was dead.”

Why, does she think, was her husband selected for assassination?

“Because he used the legal system for people who previously had no one to do that for them,” she replies, picking her words carefully. “People who are repressed generally don't have any representation but Pat was educated. He decided to become a lawyer and he wanted to give something back to his own community. People who previously had no representation suddenly had someone to represent them.

“When he was killed it really did rock the whole judiciary. There were a number of people in the law who just decided they wouldn't do anything controversial after that. They weren't putting their heads above the parapet, and that's fine if you have a young family and you need to protect them. Other people considered moving away altogether because they were so worried. Then, some people, like Rosemary Nelson [solicitor killed by a car bomb in 1999], decided they would continue challenging things, and she paid with her life.”

Even though police witnesses at the inquest and other investigations since have reiterated that Pat Finucane was not a member of the IRA, unidentified sources have persisted with the line that he was in off-the-record conversations. The former IRA informer, Sean O'Callaghan, has claimed that he saw Finucane at an IRA meeting in Donegal.

“Sean O'Callaghan, as far as I can make out, is a liar,” she responds calmly. “Anything I have ever read that he has said is untrue. Pat had a very good reputation and he was a very good lawyer so, when someone like Sean O'Callaghan comes along, people know the truth.”

She admits that the IRA allegations “make the children very angry, though they're grown up now and they probably deal with its better than I do, to be honest.” (Two of the three children followed their father into the law. The eldest, Michael, has his own solicitor's firm in Dublin and the youngest, John, is serving his apprenticeship with a Belfast firm.)


Pat Finucane's murder changed nobody's life as much as it changed his wife's. Testimony to that begins at her garden gate, a tasteful red-painted iron gate fitted with intricate wiring and an intercom. Security lights have been installed under the house eaves and among the flowering shrubs in the garden. The installations are unobtrusive but markedly more sophisticated than those at the neighbouring houses, a legacy not only of the past but of a real and present danger.

“A journalist came to my brother-in-law and told him he was aware there was an imminent threat against my life,” she recounts. “We asked the police about it and they came back and said, ‘oh, yes, there is a threat but I wouldn't say it was imminent'.” She requests that the danger not be over-stated as her elderly mother is unaware of it. Asked why someone would want to kill her to replies: “People are afraid of the truth. Maybe they think if they get rid of me it will all stop.”

Geraldine Finucane has never had the opportunity to tell her story to a judicial inquiry into her husband's murder. She and the family did not cooperate with the Cory inquiry because, on principle, they believed that it was an unnecessary process used to delay the establishment by the British government of a full inquiry into the circumstances of Pat's death. “When he was first appointed, we asked for a meeting so we could explain our position and that it was nothing personal. He was fine about it. He was a delightful man, an absolutely delightful man who did his job under difficult circumstances because his wife took ill just after he'd been appointed.”

Since then, William Stobie, a loyalist who admitted his involvement, was murdered after his trial collapsed and the only person convicted in relation to the murder, Ken Barrett, was released from jail last year. Geraldine Finucane has consistently stated that her attention throughout has been focused, not on the two men to broke into her house and killed her husband, but on the faceless people who orchestrated it.

“When Pat was killed there were obvious questions that needed to be answered. It was very slow at the start. You asked questions and nothing happened but then Brian Nelson [a British agent operating as the UDA's head of intelligence who was involved in the Finucane murder] was arrested and it was discovered he was an agent. Then we found out about the Force Research Unit [an elite unit of British intelligence]. On Pat's tenth anniversary, Jane Winter from British Irish Rights Watch put everything that we had found out together in a paper called ‘Deadly Intelligence' and when I read that I realised that this was a strategy or a policy against everyone.

“I thought ‘this didn't just effect Pat, there's a little umbrella of people who've been affected like this. We gave the paper to the Taoiseach and when we went to see him Liz O'Donnell said, when she read it, she thought it was chilling. Sometimes little would happen. People say to us ‘18 years is such a long time' but now the word ‘collusion' is used freely. When we started off, I think people used to feel, ‘God love her, she's grasping at straws, poor thing'. People have moved on now and want to know how much of it there was.

“We've got great support. My family and Pat's family have been very supportive. When I used to work in town, people would come up to me on the street and say, ‘You keep doing what you're doing. This needs to come out'. I don't see myself as strong, because I'm not doing it on my own. I'm stubborn, maybe. If I really want something and someone really annoys me, then I'll persist until I get it. Not everyone wants to give their life up and do what I do. You don't want journalists in your home and you don't want media attention.

“I can't look at this on a totally personal level any more. There are other groups who have discovered collusion. We dropped our stone in the water and it started sending out ripples. What is going to happen when all the other stones are dropped? I feel that if it wasn't very important, the British government would have dealt with it before now. There must be a reason why they've prevented it [a full inquiry] from happening. They're trying to sort Northern Ireland out but they know there are issues that need to be dealt with. You need to have the place cleaned up. You need to have no festering wounds. Why don't they want to deal with this use? They have so much in there they don't want to come out.”

In all the 18 years, did she ever encounter anyone on the side of the British government she considered brave enough to expose the truth? “Mo Mowlam would have liked to have helped but she was one voice.”

What of Tony Blair? “The first time we met Tony Blair he didn't take us seriously at all. He came into the room in a very gung-ho fashion with his sleeves rolled up. There were no formalities. We said at that first meeting: ‘You're New Labour. You didn't create this problem but, if you have the political will, you can deal with it.' Now when we see him, we say: ‘You didn't deal with it, so now you are part of the problem.'”

Though Bertie Ahern is the first Taoiseach she has met, she says Irish governments have been very supportive. “It was they who persuaded us to accept Peter Cory because they felt it was the best way to get an inquiry. We were very worried that he could come out and say, ‘no, you don't need an inquiry'. But it has dragged it out for so many more years. Maybe if they (Irish governments) had been slightly stronger or more insistent, we would be farther along.

“We have been very lucky that the public in general have always supported us and not got tired of us. I don't want to be seen to be somebody who has been asking for something for 18 years and then, when I get it [an inquiry], turn my nose up at it. I have said to Peter Hain that, under the Weston Park Agreement, they can make a special category of our case and set up the inquiry under the existing legislation. They are going to have to back down from their position if they want us to participate but there is a way to do it without losing face.”

Later, at the door saying goodbye, Geraldine Finucane is captured in the back-glow of her kitchen light. For someone whose character has towered over Northern Ireland's recent history, her diminutive physical size is remarkable. As she closes the door, calling to Dali, the cat, the lasting impression is of a woman determined to expose the full circumstances of her husband's death. To her, Pat Finucane died because of his faith in the law and only the law itself can finally lay his memory to rest.