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
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.''