Former Terrorist Takes Offensive for Peace

Since his prison release, convicted IRA bomber Shane Paul O'Doherty has been speaking out for laying down arms. NORTHERN IRELAND

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AS a child he loved Irish dancing and studied Gaelic. At the nearby Roman Catholic church, he was a devout choirboy. His father, a much-respected headmaster at the local Christian Brother's School, encouraged him to read voraciously from a young age. And he was popular. His warm, outgoing personality endeared him to members of both sides of the sectarian divide in bitterly split Londonderry. Indeed, he had many Protestant, as well as Catholic, friends.

Then, at age 20, the hometown where he had been so widely known and liked was left shaken by the news. Shane Paul O'Doherty was arrested for masterminding a notorious international letter-bomb campaign in which 14 people were injured, some seriously. His secret was out: He was, and had been since his youth, a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). By the time the police caught Mr. O'Doherty he was, in fact, a key figure in the organization that, to many worldwide, is synonymous with death and destruction.

His trial was swift. O'Doherty did not contest the charges and expressed no public remorse for his crimes; during the trial he read a book. When the verdict came he received a staggering 30 life sentences, plus 20 years.

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That was 15 years ago. Today a free man again - he was released after serving a slightly larger portion of his time than is usual according to British penal standards - O'Doherty continues to surprise. He is a changed man, utterly committed to bringing peace to his beleaguered country.

While I interview O'Doherty for several hours at Dublin's Gresham Hotel, he asserts that even while he was engaged in his bombing campaigns he had to admit to himself that terrorism was a clumsy tactic - impossible as it was to focus exclusively on so-called ``legitimate'' targets. He knew it was often secretaries or postal workers, rather than military personnel or politicians, who received the injuries.

But it was at the trial that O'Doherty came full face with the emptiness of his reasoning. While feigning his book reading, he was in fact watching the proceedings. ``And it was only in seeing the parade of innocents coming through the court to testify,'' he remembers, ``the innocents who were injured by the violence of mine, that I suddenly realized my own record on human rights violations. Until then I had been remote from my violence: You just pressed the button, the bombs dropped, and you didn't see what they did. From that moment on I was severely embarrassed and ashamed that we in the IRA had married our campaign of political change to the tactic of violence. And that shame is something that will always live with me.''

O'Doherty also credits close scrutiny of Christian doctrine, Quaker literature, secular tracts on human rights, and pacifist philosophy for convincing him that, in truth, all violence is wrong. ``There are very basic Christian arguments for pacifism that the main churches here ignore,'' he says. ``Jesus Christ, for instance, had a sacred cause, a divine cause, an innocent cause ... and he wouldn't even allow violence to be used in support of that.''

As for those who reject Christian morality, O'Doherty is ready with examples of the gross counterproductivity of violence. ``I tell those people that from all the evidence, armed struggle and the politics of coercion have failed on every side,'' he argues, ``and will continue to fail. Such tactics simply cannot create the groundwork for the peace and unity they are seeking.''

James Mehaffey, the Episcopal Bishop of Derry, is one of the many somewhat unlikely supporters of O'Doherty. Dr. Mehaffey is the spiritual head of the community that O'Doherty once made a solemn pledge to fight. The two men met when the young Catholic prisoner wrote to the bishop saying that he had painted a picture that he wanted to present as a personal gift. The painting, recalls Mehaffey, depicted visions of violence and nonviolence, in which death, injury, and suffering gave way to peace and a more constructive outcome.

``It was a powerful painting,'' says the bishop. ``It was meant to be a way of expressing how much he [valued] where I stood. It was a way of saying thank you.''

The significance of such an encounter cannot be overstated. Protestant bishops simply do not visit convicted Catholic-nationalist terrorists in Ulster prisons - nor would they normally be asked to do so. ``I do believe he has turned completely from his former violence,'' concludes Mehaffey.

Another believer in O'Doherty's reform is Brigadier Michael O'Cock, one of the victims of a bombing, who was a witness at the trial and helped to put the bomber behind bars. While in prison O'Doherty wrote letters of apology - an act without precedent for a convicted IRA man - to those who had suffered as a result of the bombs.

Although initially skeptical, O'Cock now fully accepts his sincerity. ``The more he does to make amends for what he did wrong in the past, the better I'm pleased,'' says the brigadier, adding that ``certainly his public repudiation of terrorism is of far greater importance than just a letter.''

O'Doherty, now 35, is currently studying for an English degree at Trinty College at the University of Dublin, Ireland's leading Protestant academic institution. The 8,000-member student body there recently elected the ex-IRA man as their spokesman on the Northern Ireland question.

The irony of an essentially Protestant establishment selecting a former Catholic terrorist for such a post is not lost on O'Doherty. ``I was staggered and amazed,'' he says, ``that the message I had been promoting since my release from prison and the policies I was promulgating against all violence and the need for talks had actually gotten across. It has encouraged me to feel that there is perhaps a role for someone who believes that a single individual can actually be a catalyst for peace.''

Running his hand through his tousled Celtic curls, he says with a chuckle, ``I haven't slept in the last four months.'' He goes on to explain in rapid, cheerful speech, heavily laced with Northern Irish twang, that between all-night sessions writing essays and terms papers, he has been freelancing for various Irish newspapers (to supplement the modest student grant he lives on) and speaking publicly on behalf of peace.

To be sure, there are other ex-members of Ulster paramilitaries, both Catholic and Protestant, who have over the years, for a variety of reasons, decided to break away from extremist groups. Where O'Doherty is different, say all those whom I interviewed, lies in the completeness of his change, coupled with his courageous commitment to using the full weight of his mounting influence and speaking talents to publicly push for a negotiated settlement that would put an end to the bloody troubles of Ulster.

Ciaran McKeown, a well-known Northern Irish journalist and pacifist of long-standing, says that O'Doherty ``stands out from the pack ... in the thoroughness of his thinking through his [pacifist] convictions. You'll find [former members of the IRA] who will say quietly, `The armed struggle is going nowhere - but if you could raise a thousand men, then maybe it would be worth it.' In other words, they might agree that the situation is at a stalemate, but that's not to say they would, by any means, embrace nonviolence. Whereas O'Doherty would argue that if you could raise a thousand men, you'd simply multiply the damage by a thousand. So you see, in his case, its a matter of conviction, not simply tactic.''

O'Doherty is optimistic that his message will ultimately be heard. He is certain that the time is ripe for people to begin to listen. ``The reality is that paramilitaries on both sides are made up of men, flesh and blood, and they are all Irish,'' he says. ``They are talking to people like me and I talk with them. There's a great deal of contact going on, and people have learned a lot in recent years about the cost of violence and the horror of it. I do believe in the power of individual effort, of every single contribution to talking our way out of violence. You may not see the fruits straightaway. You may have to wait three months, or three years - or 30 years. But I'm convinced talking actually works.''

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