I can end unionist domination in north Belfast - John Finucane

John Finucane, son of Murdered solicitor Pat Finucane, is to stand for election. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
John Finucane, son of Murdered solicitor Pat Finucane, is to stand for election. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

The new face of Sinn Fein politics is convinced he can end decades of unionist domination in North Belfast.

John Finucane, whose solicitor father Pat was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in one of the most infamous cases of the Troubles, believes the republican party can take the seat for the first time and cause “quite a ripple right across Ireland.”

But the DUP’s Nigel Dodds, whose own family was attacked by IRA gunmen in 1996, says Mr Finucane may be a new candidate but claims he follows the same “extreme republican ideology”.

Mr Dodds - who has held the seat since 2001 - also attacked the republican party’s abstentionist policy.

While running candidates in general elections Sinn Fein have always refused to take their seats at Westminster, but still insist their voice will be heard, especially during Brexit negotiations.

Mr Dodds says it would be a “tragedy” to leave North Belfast voiceless in Westminster.

Situated on the shores of Belfast Lough, the constituency includes some of the most divided and deprived communities in Northern Ireland where sectarian tensions between the Protestant loyalist and Catholic nationalists are high.

Nationalist Ardoyne has been hit by almost annual scenes of rioting following contentious Twelfth of July Orange Order parades.

“The main thing about North Belfast, it wants, needs and deserves a voice to speak up for them, to stand up for them, especially at a time when Stormont is not working,” says Mr Dodds.

“To leave North Belfast completely voiceless and unrepresented would be a tragedy for everybody.

“I don’t contemplate for a minute that Sinn Fein will win the seat,” he adds.

Mr Dodds believes that all Sinn Fein candidates “follow the same extreme republican ideology of Gerry Adams”.

“The candidate in North Belfast was nominated by (former IRA prisoner) Gerry Kelly. They don’t offer anything different to what Sinn Fein has offered in the past which is boycott, negativity, abstention.

“If you want a positive vision for Northern Ireland in the UK and someone standing up for North Belfast then you have to vote for me.”

Traditionally, North Belfast has been a safe unionist seat since Cecil Walker won it in 1983 but demographics have changed and according to the 2011 Census Catholics are now in the majority.

The result of the recent Stormont election - where Sinn Fein came within one seat of being level with the DUP - has emboldened the republican party.

Mr Finucane said he would not be running if he did not believe he could win.

“The gap is getting a lot smaller. There is a degree of energy and confidence in progressive politics.

“I have even had feedback from police officers who have contacted me to congratulate me in what I am doing, wishing me all the best.

“Not a lot of people would have thought that was possible a few years ago. I’m chuffed at that. People from different strands of society are showing there is an appetite for progressive, equal politics,” says Mr Finucane.

The Belfast solicitor accused the DUP of equating abstentionism “with complete inactivity and irrelevance”.

“With respect, I think the MPs from here who have been in the chamber have been as close to irrelevant as you can get.

“In relation to Brexit, with regards here, we (Sinn Fein) are going for special designated status. We are not going to get that by talking to Theresa May whether that is in the chamber or outside.

“The only way we are going to get any progress on this is by engaging the way we have been engaging which is directly with the Irish government and other member states,” he says.

Mr Finucane is certain that the only party able to unsit an MP is Sinn Fein.

“If you vote SDLP in this election you are enabling Nigel Dodds to potentially go back to Westminster. You are talking about an MP who is in the chamber and actively campaigning for Brexit,” he says

“There is a unique opportunity at the minute that North Belfast can send a very clear message and cause quite a ripple right across Ireland,” adds Mr Finucane.

Mr Finucane was the party’s surprise choice rather than party veteran and former IRA prisoner Gerry Kelly.

Dr Jonny Byrne from the school of criminology and politics at Ulster University said his selection is seen as an attempt by Sinn Fein to reach out to new voters.

“It is a change in the status quo where we are moving away from the traditional Kelly versus Dodds. It is a fundamental shift in what we are used to.

“Sinn Fein believe after the assembly election that North Belfast is a winnable seat and have decided to throw significant resources into the campaign in the constituency,” Dr Byrne says.

He adds: “Finucane ticks all the right boxes - he is young, professional, he has the name recognition, he is a new generation of Sinn Fein. He is fresh and energised and is offering something different. It is definitely a constituency to watch. “

The Ulster Unionists are not running a candidate in the constituency giving the DUP a free run for the unionist vote.

The SDLP rejected a call by Sinn Fein to stand aside in the constituency and has selected the party press officer, Martin McAuley, as the North Belfast candidate.

While the SDLP has insisted Mr McAuley is not a “token” candidate, the way seems clear for a straight battle between the two political heavyweights, Dodds and Finucane.

Mr McAuley said: “The choice here is simple.

“An MP who has betrayed the will of his constituents, an MP who won’t turn up to take on Theresa May or an SDLP MP who will take a stand and take this seat to oppose the Tories at every turn.”

Candidates standing in Belfast North: Nigel Dodds (DUP) John Finucane (Sinn Fein) Martin McAuley (SDLP) Sam Nelson (Alliance) Malachai George O’Hara (Green Party) Gemma Weir (The Workers Party).