UK news: The father of all protest groups
Fathers 4 Justice is the high-profile pressure group that raises awareness of fathers battling with the legal system to see their children. It was founded in the UK but is now spreading all over the world. F V Evans spoke to Matt O’Connor, the man who started it all.
To begin with, I wanted to know how Fathers 4 Justice had all come about. Surely only a very personal experience could give rise to a movement backed by such energy and conviction.
Matt explained: "I had a very difficult divorce, I had difficulty trying to get to see my two boys who are now 12 and ten. I went through the court system and experienced the ‘baptism by fire’ that everybody goes through. Not many people were aware of it before F4J, so really I decided that I should try to do something about it. My original plan after my divorce was to go into the restaurant business, as my background is in PR for the restaurant business, but being a man of immense stupidity I decided to work for a cause! I’ve worked for Amnesty International, in the anti-apartheid movement, and I’d got experience of the court system. But by the time I set up F4J, I’d been seeing my kids for over a year"
It sounds as though this had all been thought about quite sensibly and rationally, not in the heat of the moment whilst in the midst of a traumatic divorce case.
Matt agreed: "I would not have been able to do it if I’d been going through it, because it distorts your perspective of what you’re going through; the bitterness and anger is corrosive, it just disfigures your ability to think in a clear way," he said. "But I’d got back on feet very quickly, I had some money, so much to my accountant’s abject horror I decided to set up F4J. I like a challenge, and it seemed like a good idea – well, it is an excellent idea – only I hadn’t mapped out an escape strategy! I had hoped that politically it would be bigger, that politicians would adopt what we were saying, but that never happened. And also, we’ve gone from just being about the court system to fathers being made redundant financially through the Child Support Agency [the public body which enforces fathers’ monetary contributions to their children] and biologically, through the Human Tissue and Embryology Bill [which states doctors no longer need to consider the needs of a child, conceived artificially, for a father]. These things have followed on from the original mission. It was initially just a UK phenomenon, but is now about Canada, it’s about America, Ireland, France, Italy, Czechoslovakia…"
I asked Matt what he was expecting when his divorce case first entered the courts. Was he prepared for how he would be treated?
"No," he said, emphatically. "I was totally unprepared, nobody had warned me. Until it starts happening, well, then you feel it. It makes a mockery of our idea of equality and justice, because you go in and you think that there will be balance and fairness. I thought I had a right, in law, to see my kids. But I didn’t. Nobody does, in this country. It was absolutely horrific, the worst experience of my life."
At what point did he realise things were not going to go the way he expected?
"The first time I realised I was in serious difficulty was when I was told I had to prove it was in my kids’ best interest for them to see me," Matt explained. "Up until that point, I felt that, you know, I’d led a fairly blessed life, but it was then that I suddenly felt as though I’d walked into a theme park corridor of mirrors. I didn’t recognise the country or system of justice that, despite all its flaws, would have some fairly fundamental principles, and one of them would be that you wouldn’t have to prove it was in your child’s best interest to see you. How can that happen? I can see anybody else’s kids, I can live with anybody else’s kids, they could have their kid mates over, there could be kids, kids, kids everywhere – I can see them all, but not my own. It seems a complete perversion of morality and justice. Unfortunately we have a lot of laws in this country, but very little justice. F4J reason for existing is so that brave and principled men can make brave and principled stands, it’s about ordinary people’s acts of courage."
Obviously, one of the things I wanted to know most about were the huge stunts. These have involved all sorts of things, from men dressing up as superheroes and climbing public buildings with huge banners, to mobbing the debating chamber in the Houses of Parliament. It’s no exaggeration to say that these have generated huge amounts of press attention. I was curious: were these initial ideas, or did they develop over time?
"No, well, how it all came about was, I was talking to Government, and they threatened me with contempt of court for having my story published by the Evening Standard [London evening daily newspaper]," Matt explains. "I said simply that I was going to start the biggest protest group this country has ever seen. About three or four months later I went back, rang Sally Field at the Lord Chancellor’s department, said: ‘You know I said we’d meet up again soon? Well, as promised I’ll be there in about five minutes – and I’ve got a couple of hundred other guys with me, all dressed as Father Christmas!’ So we stormed the lobby of the Lord Chancellor’s department, and that was what started it. Ultimately we realised that there’s nothing to hold us back, only our own fear. The basic thing was: peaceful protest not direct action."
I then asked Matt about the message of Fathers 4 Justice spreading across America.
"At the moment, we do need leadership [for F4J] in America. One of the fundamental problems with this kind of movement is that, unlike Greenpeace, you are dealing with people who are in a highly turbulent mental state, it’s a living bereavement, it warps and distorts your perspective, which is why I said I couldn’t have started F4J if I’d been going through it. So, there’s lots of angst, and the consequence is that nobody does anything! But it can be done, Americans can do it! What about Rosa Parks? What about the Americans protesting in Beijing right now??"
Finally, I asked Matt what, if only one thing could change for divorcing couples in the UK, would it be?
"One thing,’ he replies immediately. "That men and women are treated equally in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of society."