9th November 2021
In his Irish News Business column today, MCE’s Paul McErlean talks about the importance of character and pays tribute to his old teammate, Anthony Finnegan, who died recently after a nine-year struggle with Motor Neurone Disease.
For quite a few weeks now, I've been waiting to write this column about Anto Finnegan. A lot of fine things were written at the time of Anto's passing including an excellent, heartfelt piece from our former team mate, Kevin Madden, here in the Irish News.
There was also a brilliant video tribute to him shown to 500 people at the successful Saffron Business Forum lunch last Friday at the Crown Plaza Hotel. The video was very professionally produced by Jerome Quinn with support from BBC NI, Paul Donnelly and some of Anto's closest team mates and friends. And while it was very moving, it wasn't without its humour also, as Anto would have liked. Our team mate and former All-Star nominee goalkeeper Sean McGreevy reported his late mother telling him: ‘I know you're my son, but Anto's my favourite player'!
So, what is there left to say about Anthony Finnegan, particularly here in the business pages? I've been thinking about an interview he did for BBC television nearly two years after his Motor Neurone Disease (MND) diagnosis was made public. The interview was helping to launch a football match in November 2014 between an Ulster GAA Select and the Dublin senior football team at the home of Ulster Rugby.
Anto said that, having been diagnosed with MND, he and his wife Alison had decided they should do something about it – to raise awareness and to help in some small way. That interview encapsulated Anto in a few short minutes: the loyal, humble family man and the person of character who would stand up and face into the winds of adversity ahead.
The ‘Game for Anto' at the new Kingspan stadium was an enormous success and Ulster Rugby deserves massive credit for the way it stood in support of Anto and the work it put in with the Ulster Council, the Antrim County Board and St Paul's in delivering the event. The game was one of many examples of Anto, Alison and their children, Conall and Ava's charitable efforts to support MND research.The charity, deterMND, has raised over £300,000 since with some of the unforgettable events bringing a whole community together, with Anto, of course, in the middle of them, smiling, laughing and as big Joe Quinn said in the video, slegging.
The point I want to come back to though is character. Because I was his team mate for many years, we all knew the strength of Anto's character. But it was only when he got the disease did we and a much wider audience come to appreciate how that character would instinctively do the right thing and do it an inclusive, humble, and often humorous way.
There are numerous ways in which Anto and his family could have reacted to a horrible, incurable disease. The evidence of the last nine years of his life show that he stood up honourably and courageously, setting an example for us all. For me, that is the point I want to make here, and it has really come into stark relief in the last couple of days because of the involvement of two companies from Northern Ireland in the latest scandal at Westminster.
Abraham Lincoln recognised a significant difference between character and reputation. “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing,” he said.
Over the last number of years, two companies from here have been paying large sums to a now former MP. the Parliamentary Committee for Standards, which is deliberately cross-party in its formation, found after a comprehensive investigation that the actions of the MP were in breach of standards.
I'm not getting into it in depth here, but just how badly those standards were breached and just how improper the actions of the MP were is plain to see and worth reading about elsewhere if you haven't already. What hasn't really been focused on too much is the morality and, yes, character, of the actions of the two companies from here who have paid him, between them, over half a million pounds in the last five years.
Those companies did not break any laws with their payments, but their actions have fundamentally damaged their reputations. Why would you pay an MP a large monthly retainer? What was it they hoped to gain? The various efforts of the MP exposed in the report tell that tale in embarrassing detail.
What I have thought about in recent days is what Anto (who had a long and successful career with BT) would have said if those companies had asked him about paying an MP to represent them on matters over which that MP might have influence and which would have a potentially positive commercial impact on them?
Like all of us, Anto wasn't perfect. He was no saint. But I'm certain I know the answer to that question. And I know it because I knew Anto's character. I know it because of the integrity of him and his family's life after he was diagnosed.
In Anto's case, his character and his reputation are aligned, the shadow cast by his exemplary reaction to his disease is an example to us all. I was lucky to know him, and when I need inspiration or when I have a doubt about the difference between the right and wrong thing to do in business or anything else, he will be one of the first people I think of – because, in the end, character counts, everywhere, all of the time. Anto Finnegan RIP.
Read Paul's monthly column on the Irish News website
Photo: Former Antrim GAA captain Anto Finnegan pictured at Casement Park in 2014 before the onset of MND. Picture: Kelvin Boyes/PressEye