(f4j) Evening Standard: 'Crazy dads' don't stop their antics

Submitted by Editor on Thu, 15/07/2004 - 21:25

By David Cohen,
Evening Standard

Somewhat unsteadily - he had two bottles of whisky inside him - Matt O'Connor heaved himself up on to the railing of Waterloo Bridge and stared into the depths of the Thames below. From his wallet, he pulled the dog-eared photographs of his sons, Daniel and Alexander, then aged five and four, for one last look, and prepared to jump.

But something in their innocent, smiling faces made him pause and, finding pen and paper in his jacket pocket, he began to compile two lists. The first, titled "reasons to kill myself ", was a long, painful one: his marketing business had gone bankrupt, his wife had left him, the family court was all but denying him access to his kids, he had no house and was down to his last 200 quid. Under the second list, "reasons to live", he wrote two words: "Daniel" and "Alexander".

At that moment - in October 2001 - he had, he says, the kernel of a vision. "I thought, f*** it, Matt, instead of jumping off bridges, start climbing them."

From: Matthew O'Connor
Date: Wed, 14 Jul 2004

14 July 2004

Although it would be another year before he founded Fathers 4 Justice, it was on Waterloo Bridge that the group's dramatic stunt formula - climbing cranes at Tower Bridge, throwing flour bombs at the Prime Minister, hijacking the altar at York Minster - was born.

O'Connor had sought help from existing fathers' rights groups but wrote them off as a bunch of losers, and gave himself until December 2005 to put fathers' rights squarely on the agenda and change the law. He would employ non-violent direct action, and he would combine it with a super-hero motif, because "every father", he said, "is a super-hero to their child".

This week, as Michael Howard, the Conservative Party leader, called for a fairer deal for fathers, you would think O'Connor would be celebrating.

"Howard - what a f***ing hypocrite!" O'Connor, 37, exclaims, as he meets me at the station in his silver Mini Cooper, which he proceeds to drive at speed through the narrow country lanes that lead to his home and headquarters in the Suffolk village of Cavendish.

Everything about Matt O'Connor is high energy and frenetic: his talking, his swearing, his lifestyle (up at 5am for a 19-hour day fuelled by two dozen cups of coffee); the development of his organisation into the highest-profile, fastest-growing fathers' rights group in Britain.

Michael Howard, he laughs, is a populist cynically trying to win votes. "Last year, at the Conservative Party Conference, we approached Howard and he didn't want to touch fathers' rights with a barge-pole. What's changed? The emergence of Fathers 4 Justice, that's what."

O'Connor, I suspect, is secretly pleased the Tory leader has embraced his cause, but also piqued that Howard had distanced himself from what he called the group's "childish antics". Their latest stunt took place last weekend when they stormed York Minster. Dressed in a cassock, O'Connor led the charge, shaking off a rugby tackle from church security to harangue church leaders for their failure to support fathers' rights, before spending 10 hours in a north Yorkshire nick.

Today, his body feels bruised and battered, his neck stiff but, as he chalks up the York Minster raid as another success, it is Howard's ambiguous attitude that epitomises the dilemma he faces.

He has made tremendous progress: his organisation now has 200 core activists and 10,000 members. But he is eschewed by the mainstream, including fathers' organisations who say the real reason fathers' rights are moving up the agenda is because of their hard work, quietly carried out behind the scenes, over the past five years. Fathers 4 Justice, they say, are an immature, irresponsible bunch who only serve to reinforce all the knee-jerk, negative stereotypes of men, and do more harm than good.

"I couldn't give a flying f***," O'Connor says of his critics. "We did it their way for too long and the only result was erosion of fathers' rights. Now we're doing it my way."

O'Connor was, by his own admission, "an appalling husband and shite father". So why should anyone listen to him? Because he is a reformed man, he insists, and because, however much he deserved to be criticised when his wife divorced him, his children have a right to their father. The fact that his ex-wife has been subsequently big enough to forgive him, allowing him unregulated contact with his sons, is "no thanks", he says, to the family court system, and represents an outcome that many fathers can only dream about.

O'Connor grew up an "angry young man" in Ramsgate, Kent, the eldest of two sons, his mother an English teacher, his Irish father a headmaster, and he remembers his childhood as desperately unhappy. "My father was a playboy and thought that women should stay in the kitchen while men go to the pub. Eventually, my parents separated. To make matters worse, I was crap at school and lacked confidence."

He channelled his anger into Left-wing politics. He joined the 1984 miners' strike, signed up to the anti-apartheid movement, and got involved in Amnesty International and Greenpeace. After school, he went to Art College in Canterbury, but was kicked out after falling for a topless lingerie model and failing to attend classes for four weeks.

By the time O'Connor fell in love with, and married, Sophie, a schoolteacher, in 1994, he was 27, living in Barking, east London, and earning £50,000 a year working in design and marketing. Together they had two sons, Daniel and Alexander.

But it wasn't long before he began to repeat the philandering behaviour of his (now deceased) father. "My job was designing restaurants and bars and I got sucked into that hedonistic world of cocktails, beautiful women and extra-marital affairs," he says. "Some nights I never went home and wound up having sex in the company flat, while Sophie was home with the kids."

In 2000, Sophie asked for a divorce and sought - through the family court - to cut his contact with their sons to a minimum. "To be denied access to my kids felt like a bereavement," he says. "I was divorcing Sophie. Why did that mean I had to divorce my kids?

"I was totally naive. I thought the court would be even-handed but, for 18 months, every time I went to court, I got screwed. I was treated like a third-class citizen. I could have understood their attitude if I had been a danger to my family, but that was never an issue."

Around that time, O'Connor's business partner died and the company went bankrupt. It was then that he found himself teetering on the railing of Waterloo Bridge.

That was the turning point. He went to see a counsellor, stopped drinking, rebuilt his career and, most importantly, his relationship with Sophie. He also began to plot the formation of his new fathers' rights group, which would employ Gandhi-like tactics of non-violent direct action, and which he would launch with £70,000 of his own money.

The irony was that by the time Fathers 4 Justice kicked off with its first demonstration in December 2002, O'Connor's private life was back on track. His ex-wife had agreed unrestricted access to his sons and they have transformed a hostile relationship into a harmonious one. O'Connor has nothing but praise for his ex-wife, and nothing but rage for the family courts.

"Our plan," says O'Connor, "is to carry out one high-profile act of public disobedience each month until the law is changed." He has stunts planned all the way through to the election in May next year.

"Our number one target is Margaret Hodge, the Children's Minister," he says. "The only reason we haven't hit her yet is because I don't want to engender sympathy for her or, worse, see her replaced by someone clever. It would be easy for the Government to take the wind out of our sails. All they'd have to do is give us some of what we want. I don't want some messy draw. I see us as these crazy dads, sawing away at the bottom of a Redwood. It will take some time, but when it falls, it will be f***ing explosive!"

But what do his family think of his at-times-ridiculous antics?

"Sophie has told me in no uncertain terms that she wants me to jack it in," he says. "She says it's bad for my blood pressure, and now that the boys are older, she says they want to spend more time with their dad. I would like nothing more than to go back to the quiet life, but I can't ask other fathers to risk their liberty if I'm not willing to do the same.

"My problem is," he says, looking forlorn, "I have no exit. I have to keep going until I collapse from high blood pressure, or I change the law. Whichever comes first."

Related stories - The truth about the man behind Fathers 4 Justice - Blair attacked in the commons

-- Dave Ellison
Fathers 4 Justice International Co-ordinator.
Fathers for Justice-UK: http://www.fathers-4-justice.org
Fathers for Justice-Canada: http://www.fathers-4-justice.ca
Fathers for Justice-Australia: http://www.fathers-4-justice-aus.org
Homepage: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/mad-dogs/
AOL Messenger: dad4justice



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