10 June 2007 11:44
Matt O'Connor was the force behind the stunts involving comic-book heroes that kept his pressure group in the news. After a year sorting out his domestic troubles, he has returned to the fray and a big surprise is planned...
Interview by Cole Moreton
Published: 10 June 2007
Holy security cordons, Batman is back. He won't be wearing tights this time but does promise to make more enemies than ever before. "This one is a fucking cracking idea," says the fast-talking Matt O'Connor, founder of the campaign group Fathers 4 Justice, with a grin. "It's the most controversial thing we have ever done. If it happens they will come down on us like a ton of bricks."
"They" are the police, the law, the politicians - the people O'Connor has been irritating since he started the most spectacular protest movement of modern times, four years ago. Batman on a ledge at Buckingham Palace. Spiderman on the London Eye. Purple powder hitting the Prime Minister in the House of Commons when the country was afraid of terrorist anthrax. They were all Fathers 4 Justice stunts. They were all condemned as irresponsible, stupid, dangerous or offensive.
Then came a plot to kidnap Leo Blair, the Prime Minister's young son, as "revealed" in The Sun in January 2006. O'Connor condemned the idea as "sick" and insisted he knew nothing about it. The story wasn't true anyway, he says. But it made him walk away, declare that his campaigning days were over. So why, after more than a year out of the headlines, is O'Connor back and promising to make the biggest stink yet?
"We have a high-profile idea that will take the protest right to the heart of government," says the 40-year-old marketing consultant, whose rapid, freewheeling sentences often morph into slogans. "Literally. To the heart of our democracy."
We are at his home in Winchester, Hampshire, a modern apartment with wooden floors and walls that are lined with framed newspaper front pages. "Purple flour bomb hits Blair," tuts The Daily Telegraph. "Flour Show Special," wisecracks Private Eye. O'Connor wears a chunky silver bracelet on his wrist in the shape of barbed wire. If the verbal machinegun that is his mouth is telling the truth, then his troops will go over the top in London some time before Father's Day next Sunday.
"There will be no men in tights," he says. "That was right for its time, but it's not for now. I won't tell you what this one is but it will fuse two highly charged issues together." Excitement blurs his estuary accent. "Among the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan 54 fathers have died, orphaning about 83 kids. There is an irony about going off to fight a phoney war on behalf of a country which doesn't even afford you the right to be a father."
He knows the risks. "Last year the police thought we were going to target the State Opening of Parliament. Scotland Yard said to me: 'Make sure you're not coming into London on the day, because you will be arrested. And if anybody tries to do anything you will be shot.' Period."
Not that the master strategist will be placing himself in front of a gun. "Erm. I've done several things... but at this moment in time it wouldn't fit in with my long-term political plans." Those include starting a new party in the autumn, to campaign against the erosion of civil liberties. That will follow the publication by Orion in August of a book called Fathers 4 Justice: The Inside Story. He has also sold the rights to a movie, although it appears to be stuck in development.
Perhaps they are toning down the lead character. In real life, Matt O'Connor looks and sounds like a cheeky chappy survivor of Britpop (he even has a union-flag guitar on a stand in the study corner of his open-plan living space). He's wearing Chelsea boots, and faded and frayed grey jeans, a black leather box jacket and a grey T-shirt that bears the logo "Fathers 4 Justice Campaigner" on a roundel.
During his time out of the headlines the campaign didn't disband as he had said it would but consolidated quietly, putting up a slick website with a merchandising operation. It still doesn't make any money though, he says. Everyone's a volunteer. O'Connor still works as a brand consultant some of the time and his hair is spiky, gelled and highlighted. His glasses have thick, funky frames. In the lobe of each ear is a small silver cross, evidence that this lapsed Catholic has recently returned to his faith.
On his dining table are books that may well have been piled there to make several points: V for Vendetta describes a dystopian, authoritarian Britain; The Audacity of Hope by the new star of American politics Barack Obama; the works of agit-prop artist Banksy; and The Book of Dave by Will Self, a novel about a disgruntled father. "It's about a right-wing mysogynistic, racist, homophobic cab driver," O'Connor protests. "I'm centre left, raised in the Labour Party, I was in the anti-apartheid movement... this is a civil rights issue."
Any film may as well open with a shot of him standing on a bridge over the Thames, late at night with a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand, trying to jump. That happened for real six years ago when O'Connor was at his lowest. His business partner had died in an accident. The banks had foreclosed and taken away the company flat in which he was living. His ex-wife wouldn't let him see their two sons.
"It's like someone dragging a serrated knife across your heart," he says. The ex-couple were at war in the courts. "I went in like most naive, probably arrogant, slightly sexist pigs and it was a slaughterhouse. They say, 'You have no right to see your children.' Your jaw hits the floor. 'Ugh? What happened there?' Then you discover this grotesque edifice, this cathedral of cruelty which is the Royal Courts of Justice."
He's a natural spin doctor, obviously. So was he really going to jump, or just drunk and miserable? There is a long pause. "Put it this way ... I set off with the intention. There is a safety mechanism that asks how it would damage your kids. I lost my father in 1990 and I know what that does to you."
Instead he "set off on this insane adventure called Fathers 4 Justice". O'Connor himself was the force behind the stunts - such as the condom filled with flour that an F4J member threw at Tony Blair during Prime Minister's Questions in May 2004, and the scaling of Buckingham Palace by two men dressed as Batman and Robin that September. They were reviled and despised by those who said the actions endangered lives, demeaned dads and damaged the cause. But F4J also changed the nature of protest, showing how the right absurd image in the right place could dominate the news. It was bad timing and tasteless though, surely, in the wake of 9/11? "There is never a good time," he says. "Before that were the mainland bombing campaigns by the IRA."
The irony was that by F4J's peak he had sorted out his own domestic problems. "I'd been a lousy, drunken husband," he says, "but I was never a bad dad to the boys. We're a very close, tight-knit group of people. Me and my ex, Sophie, have strived to get on well since that time."
Daniel is now 11 and Alexander 10. O'Connor also has a son called Archie by his girlfriend Nadine Taylor, a fellow campaigner. Taylor was one of the F4J activists who ran on to the set of The National Lottery: Jet Set show, protesting that family law was a lottery. "She's fucking feisty," he says with pride. "Très formidable."
At its most popular Fathers 4 Justice had 12,000 paying members; now 3,000 people are registered to its website. Surprisingly, a quarter of them are women. "They have experienced family breakdown; their fathers haven't been living with them; they miss their dads. They're very supportive."
Archie was three weeks old when The Sun published its story about Leo Blair. "I knew jack shit about it," says O'Connor. "I couldn't believe it. Then the world started caving in." There was "barely a shred of truth" to the alleged plot, he says. "The organisation had been infiltrated by Scotland Yard. It was a hatchet job."
Furious and frightened, he stayed up all night talking to the media but snapped next day, on a lawn by Winchester Cathedral. Tearing off a Sky earpiece mid-interview he walked away, with the presenter calling after him. "I just didn't want to be involved any more. I was totally and utterly mentally shattered. The police, the media, the internal shenanigans, the courts, the judges... it's very difficult to remain sane."
Some people - who hated his self-confessed "dictatorial" style - didn't think he had the right to say it was all over. They called themselves Real Fathers 4 Justice and tried to put handcuffs on the then education secretary, Ruth Kelly. O'Connor admits, "There is always a danger people will go off at a tangent. One chap was threatening to blow his brains out in front of Tony Blair. You would be irresponsible if you didn't pass that information to Scotland Yard."
Fathers are now "emphatically better off" than they were four years ago, he says, not least because of the increased presumption of shared residence. "Most judges recognise and accept it. And we have started a chain of events that is unstoppable: the reform of the shambolic family justice system."
So why come back now? "I want to see mandatory mediation, before people even get to speak to their lawyers. Second thing is that both parents recognise and accept they should have equal or sensible contact. The third is that we must have an open, transparent system where the judges are held accountable for their outrageous decisions."
Maybe, as he insists, Matt O'Connor has been brought back to direct action by the stories of desperate men who come to F4J needing help. Or maybe he just can't give up the buzz of planning great stunts. And getting other people to do them. This week he - and we - will find out if they're still willing.
Further reading: 'The Book of Dave' by Will Self is published by Bloomsbury.