Sunday, August 26, 2007

F4J Matt O'Connor with wise words .

America, a new frontier for dads' barmy army .

The day before the murder of Rhys Jones, Matt O'Connor - founder of the Fathers 4 Justice group - was warning me about what happens to a society where fathers are ejected from the lives of their children. His was an apocalyptic vision of social breakdown: family life in decline, violence on the rise. "Young men are growing up with no proper male role models. Gangs become their fathers. Seventeen children have been murdered this year," O'Connor declared. And then Rhys Jones made it 18.

O'Connor and his merry band of caped crusaders - they are famous for dressing up as Spiderman and Batman - divide public opinion. Some see them as brave, bold champions of the rights of dads. Other regard them as a bunch of angry, sad, sexist blokes in tights seeking attention.

"I would not be doing my f****** job if I wasn't getting attention for the cause," says O'Connor in his defence.

Over the past five years O'Connor has sent protesters up onto the ledge of Buckingham Palace, the walls of York Minster and the tops of Stonehenge. In 2004 he arranged for Tony Blair to be flour-bombed during prime minister's questions. Then, 10 days ago, two F4J members were arrested after scaling the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. They unfurled a banner reading: "For the fathers of the nation: Fathers 4 Justice has arrived".

Listening to O'Connor, 40, talk about plans for "breaking America", he sounds like a pop manager launching a new band. In fact, with his tinted hair, hip T-shirt and designer glasses, he looks like a rock manager and he swears like an East Ender with Tourette's.

So how did a man who worked in the City designing restaurants end up as crusader for dad's rights? "I was an awful husband," he admits. "Booze, women, long hours of work - I blame myself for what happened."

The final straw came on Christmas morning in 1999 when wife Sophie and his two young sons Daniel, 9, and Alex, 7, had to wait until dad - who'd been on the razzle - turned up to open their presents. Soon after, Sophie showed him the door and asked for divorce.

As the split became more acrimonious, so access to his kids got harder and harder. O'Connor went through the family courts and could see his boys only during supervised contact visits at family centres. "A more soul-destroying experience you couldn't imagine. One minute I was dad, the next I was treated as a pariah," he says.

So began a downward spiral which ended up on Waterloo Bridge with him clutching a picture of his boys and a farewell note, looking at the dark waters below. Then he had a bright idea: "Instead of jumping from bridges, maybe we dads could aspire to something higher. It was then that I came up with the idea of Fathers 4 Justice."

What exactly does Fathers 4 Justice really want?

"We want open family courts instead of the North Korean setup we have now," says O'Connor. And he wants a right in law for every parent to see their child and for mother and father to have shared residence in a 50:50 arrangement.

"But what about kids' rights?" I say. "What if they don't want to be moving from one house to the other? It can be an unsettling and stressful experience."

"It always make me laugh when judges say that; they usually have two homes. Kids can adapt to these situations. That's life," he says with a shrug of his shoulders.

Fathers 4 Justice was an immediate success, but it soon started spinning out of control. There were accusations of sexism and financial impropriety and then, in 2006, a tabloid newspaper carried a story that Fathers 4 Justice members were planning to kidnap the prime minister's five-year-old son Leo.

O'Connor announced that he was shutting up shop, saying he had created a "Frankenstein movement" and that he longed to return to a "normal life". But now he admits "that was just a tactical manoeuvre. I don't do normal".

He claims that the whole kidnap story was the work of Scotland Yard, Special Branch, M15 and even new Labour spin doctors who were out to get him and his movement. But, pressed on the subject, O'Connor admits the idea may have come from some "nutters on the fringe of the movement doing a bit of talk down the pub".

Ah, the nutter question. Ever since dads began to talk about their rights they have been portrayed by liberal commentators - especially women - as antiwomen and sexist and angry and rather, well, nutty.

It's a charge that O'Connor rejects outright but he admits that his group has attracted some unsavoury types: "We have strict rules about sexism, racism and misogyny - any of that and you're out of the door. We've had to expel about 30 people."

"But what about the charge that your movement is full of angry men?" I ask.

"Wouldn't you be angry if you weren't allowed to see your children?" asks O'Connor reasonably.

He is anxious not to be seen as antiwomen and talks about his "wonderful" former wife, with whom he has been reconciled, and of Nadine Taylor, the mother of his new child Archie, aged 18 months.

O'Connor is not antiwomen nor is he a nut. His style of agitprop activism comes from the left, but he has a view of society that we associate with the right. He complains about the state "becoming a surrogate parent, handing out benefits" which "undermine the roles of fathers".

He denies that he's in it for the glory but I don't think he'd be happy going back to being just a designer and a dad. He appears to have something of an addictive personality and is clearly hooked on the buzz of his crusade.

His autobiography, Fathers 4 Justice: the Inside Story, is about to be published - it's a moving and hilarious account of an angry dad. He has sold the movie rights and tells me that he's working on Fathers 4 Justice: the Musical. "It's a cross between Billy Elliot and Spamalot," he says with pride.

What I find puzzling is that if family courts really do discriminate against so many men, how come his own organisation has seen a fall in membership from 12,000 a few years ago to about 4,000 now?

"We've had to be more selective about membership to regain control," he says. "Remember, men are their own worst enemies. Having experienced the horrors of the court system, they tend to walk away. I can understand that."

I suspect the truth is that Fathers 4 Justice has peaked. There's a growing understanding of the importance of fathers and there are only so many pranks you can pull off before everyone gets tired. But O'Connor's not finished. "You wait to see what happens next," he says.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read with great interest the story of Matt O'Connor and Fathers 4 Justice. Matt may have an abrasive side that the press like to focus upon, what he seeks with Fathers 4 Justice is quite reasonable; open family courts so the Judges and the expert witnesses (funded by the public) can be accountable to public scrutinty, and the automatic right for a father to see his child or children post separation or divorce. When a mother can move any man in with the kids after splitting with their dad, no questions asked, there can be no congent reason for a father not to have the same right to see them, can there? Unfortunately, the mulit billion pound divorce industry does not want change-Mum & Dad fighting is very lucrative. I experienced the corruption of family law first hand; my access case went to 133 hearings before 33 different judges and I got nowhere. But when the kids walked out on mum, I got full residence of them. See our book, 'FAMILY COURT HELL', on amazon co uk. Mark Harris.

mark harris, plymouth, uk