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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

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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.

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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.''