Published: 28/09/2007 00:00 - Updated: 25/11/2011 20:08

Ex-cop John now patrols a different beat

HE has had a gun pointed in his face by an armed robber, trained police dogs, listens to dance music and married his childhood sweetheart — now he is arguably the most powerful councillor in the Highlands. John Finnie has had a turbulent few months. In just over a year the former Inverness policeman left the force, lost an election, won an election, made history by forming Highland Council's first ever political administration, and has been involved in a row which almost brought it crashing down. "These are exciting times for Highland Council," the Inverness Ness-side councillor said. "The job is not without its frustrations. The sheer volume of information that exists is sometimes frightening in itself." Councillor Finnie rarely comes across as frustrated, however, except perhaps when reminding council officials of their role in progressing his administration's programme. He always has the air of being in control, even as he stood outside Lochardil Primary School on a summer's afternoon last August as it became apparent he was about to lose the ward's by-election, called following the death of Councillor Margaret MacLennan. "I knocked on every door in the ward," he said. "I was disappointed by the result, however it was a very clear result and David (Henderson) was a worthy winner. I'm a great believer that it's important to be gracious in defeat. It was a good grounding." The Lochardil by-election was to prove a marker post for changing times. The major political parties ploughed resources into the ward, signalling their intent for this year's full elections, in which the traditional dominance of Independent candidates was to be squeezed as a result of the switch to multi-member wards. Lib Dem Councillor Henderson is now Councillor Finnie's colleague in the Ness-side ward. The two were to lock horns again in May this year in the battle to form an administration, when the outcome turned out differently. In Lochardil Mr Finnie had been standing for the SNP, the party he joined at the age of 16, having developed a political awareness during his days at Lochaber High School and Oban High School. "Probably in my early teens I was aware of a sense of injustice at the way Scotland seemed to be viewed and in particular the misuse of geographical terms like 'England' and the 'UK'," he said. At 16 he campaigned for the nationalists in Argyll, a seat which was eventually won by candidate Iain MacCormack, son of party founder John. "In the early '70s the SNP was in the acendancy," he said. "These were exciting times, certainly approaching the 1974 elections and the SNP breakthrough." He had to put his budding political career on hold, however, because following his time as a "waster" in school, and brief spells working for a supermarket, the Forestry Commission and the Crofters' Commission, he joined the police in 1976. "At that time in the police force there was a mass exodus due to the low wages," he said. "The attraction was a long term career and a house." Mr Finnie, who married childhood sweetheart Bernadette in November 1975, moved to Edinburgh the following year at the age of 19, where he was to become a beat officer in Leith. The couple's first child Ruth, now a reflexologist and mother of two, was born in Edinburgh but the family soon wanted to return to the Highlands and in 1979 moved to Kirkhill, where Mr Finnie would man a single-officer station in the village. "I thought the Highlands would be a better place to bring up a family," he said. "The people were very friendly, my wife was involved in running the nursery, I ran the youth club." The same year as Margaret Thatcher won her first election, the couple celebrated the birth of their second child Lorne, who is now a financial analyst and talented DJ based in Edinburgh. "He's very good, I've heard," he said. "I have heard him perform but just at a small event. I enjoyed it, I like dance music, I've had to, it was hard to avoid it in my house." In 1982 the family moved to Inverness after Mr Finnie successfully applied for a job as a police dog handler in the city. "It proved to be an interesting time in my career," he said. "I think it was 10.45 on a Tuesday morning, I was advised someone had broken into a flat in the Carse area, I attended the property and the dog searched it. "The dog indicated the presence of someone behind a closed door and as I opened the door there was a man pointing a firearm at me. The dog took hold of him and put him on the deck. The bloke was out of his head on drugs, the dog restrained him." Having got himself into a few scrapes in Inverness in the 1980s, Mr Finnie joined the Police Federation, the beat officers' trade union, in 1986, and developed a reputation as a formidable negotiator. "I think it's fair to say there was rarely a week went past where there was not perceived conflict between senior officers and myself. I think it is important to depersonalise that," he said. Mr Finnie left Northern Constabulary in July last year to fight the Lochardil by-election, re-kindling a political career he set to one side around 30 years earlier. "The information we were given to impart, the manner in which we were told to impart it, was all positive," he said of the moment he realised 2007 was to be a good election for the SNP. "People don't want you to stand at their door and moan about opposition parties, I don't want to do that." On 4th May, as the nation waited with bated breath for the results of the Highland regional list vote, which would ultimately hand the SNP a one-seat victory in Holyrood, newly elected Councillor Finnie got together in Inverness Leisure Centre with his new group of colleagues and planned for the future. "I still get a shiver down my spine recalling when history was made and the first SNP government was elected. It was the culmination of what had been a very long campaign and we were in a state of some shock," he said. The SNP-group, of whom Councillor Finnie was elected leader, had no divine right to form an administration, being the third largest grouping behind the Independents and the Lib Dems. However, in the days following the election, having impressed the Independents with their consensus style, Mr Finnie's negotiating skills proved vital as the council's first political administration was formed. On-lookers, including opposition Lib Dem councillors, scratched their heads at having been caught wrong-footed. Predictions of doom for the administration were rife, but Councillor Finnie was ahead of the game again, immediately scrapping unpopular plans to privatise Highland care homes for the elderly. "I began working on care homes from the day I was elected," he said. "It was and remains a key personal goal of mine, to reassure our older people that the council sees a role in the future stability of residential care." While the SNP are junior partners in the coalition, which has Independent Sandy Park as its convener and figurehead, in practical terms Councillor Finnie holds the power. As head of a disciplined and organised group, as opposed to the Independents, the SNP-group leader is in a position to drive policy forward from the background, alongside lieutenants Drew Hendry (Aird and Loch Ness) and Pauline Munro (Inverness West). "It's a political administration made up of a party political group and a disparate group of individuals who bring a variety of skills," he said. "Our manifesto reads like a manifesto and that is what it is." After a successful honeymoon period, including the publication of a policy programme, the administration hit trouble in July and August with the row over new education committee chairman and Independent councillor Roddy Balfour's remarks about the cost of Eden Court. Mr Finnie has no regrets over the handling of the affair, which culminated in the resignation of Councillor Balfour. "As with any dispute, people say inappropriate things. I have no cause to believe the SNP acted anything other than appropriately throughout. It is issues like that which have historically ended administrations," he said. After a turbulent year, Councillor Finnie has emerged as the face of a new era in Highland politics. He is likely to encounter many more ups and downs over the next four years, however, as he attempts to stay ahead of the game and guide the council's first administration through its historic first term.

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