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Ex-IRA bomber who got 30 life sentences has words of advice for young dissidents

He was from a middle-class family in Londonderry, joined the IRA at 15 and received 30 life sentences for a letter bombing campaign but went on to renounce terrorism and seek forgiveness from his victims. Now, Shane Paul O'Doherty has this advice for young dissidents: you lose a universe by taking life, and don't gain a single speck of territory


Shane Paul O'Doherty in Spain

Shane Paul O'Doherty in Spain

With his wife Suzie

With his wife Suzie

O'Doherty being interviewed by Peter Taylor of BBC's Panorama programme for his trilogy Families At War

O'Doherty being interviewed by Peter Taylor of BBC's Panorama programme for his trilogy Families At War

Shane as a boy

Shane as a boy


Shane Paul O'Doherty in Spain

Q. As a young Provisional IRA member you bombed Derry into the ground in the 1970s. What is your response to the recent New IRA attack on the city's courthouse?

A. It makes me incredibly sad that another generation of young men and women are going down that path. There will be older people mentoring them who are exploiting them. I believe they are cannon fodder for a leadership that will use them.

It is reckless revisiting violence. The nationalist community in Derry, who have suffered so much and have gained nothing from the peace process, deserve better than starting this endless cycle all over again.

Nobody was killed this time but planting bombs inevitably leads to injuries and deaths. I would say to young dissidents that you lose a universe by taking life, and don't gain a single speck of territory. If you go down this route, you end up a civil and human rights abuser.

Q. Given your past history, they'll say you're a hypocrite.

A. Well, I've publicly condemned all my own past activities. I've apologised to my victims and worked tirelessly to try to convince paramilitaries to give up violence.

Q. Are today's dissident republican groups any different from the IRA you belonged to?

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A. No, they're not. Just as that IRA was no different to the one that fought the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. I suppose the only difference between the dissidents and the Provos is that so far the dissidents haven't chained anyone to a bomb.

Q. Why do you think dissident republican groups in Derry can attract members 25 years after the IRA ceasefire?

A. One reason is anger at the corruption in the Provisional IRA which has seen some leaders get rich and run businesses not through their own graft.

There has also been a failure to deliver anything to the west bank of Derry in terms of jobs, a motorway and a proper railway line. But the British presence in Northern Ireland remains the main driving force for dissidents, it's certainly not Brexit.

Q. Tell me about your family background.

A. I was born in 1955, the second youngest of eight children. We were a middle-class family. My father was a school teacher and my mother came from a prominent business family. We lived in a Georgian terrace in what would be regarded as a snobby street.

There was some history of republicanism on my father's side but we were definitely not a republican family.

Q. So why did you join the IRA?

A. As a boy I devoured books on Irish history in my father's library. I found 1916 and Pearse and Connolly particularly spellbinding. I wrote a pledge on a sheet of paper when I was 10 vowing to "fight and if necessary die for Ireland's freedom". I hid it under the floor boards. Years later when I was arrested the police brought me this yellowed strip of paper and I was deeply embarrassed.

My actual joining, though, was very spur of the moment. I was walking home from school and a friend said he was doing it the next day and asked if I wanted to. I said I would. A rapid decision that had horrendous consequences. I was 15 years old, and I think the use of child soldiers by the IRA, or any army, is immoral.

Q. What did you do as a young IRA member?

A. I learned to make incendiaries with condoms, acid and other chemicals. I didn't even know the real purpose of condoms. I thought they actually were intended for incendiary devices.

I burned down shops. Myself and others took on Army patrols with handguns. It was crazy.

Q. Did you have any doubts about what you were doing?

A. I fell away from the IRA for a bit, but Bloody Sunday (in January 1972) happened a week after my 17th birthday and it brought me back. I was with a friend, dawdling along like at any other civil rights march, looking at the girls from Thornhill College. Then the Paras started shooting.

Bodies of civilians were lying on the ground. I ran like the blazes and hid behind a wall. I went with a priest to the morgue at Altnagelvin Hospital. Senior Army and police officers were laughing and joking about the dead outside. I thought I'd rather be lying on a mortuary slab for doing something than for doing nothing.

Q. But the IRA wouldn't take you back?

A. They had so many adults they didn't need me. I was being hassled by the British Army and I moved down South. I wanted back into the IRA. I went to see Martin McGuinness who was being held in the Bridewell (Garda station in Dublin). I had red hair and I pretended to be his younger brother to get in. I told him: "I want to go back to the North to rock and roll." He said: "Away you go."

Q. What was the young Martin McGuinness like?

A. He was very idealistic, and a straight-up character who didn't drink or smoke. He was extremely shy. People laughed when he got his first girlfriend, Bernie. On a personal level, I liked him.

I find it very hard to reconcile that Martin with the one who sanctioned human bombs, the torture of informers, the murder of census collector Joanne Mathers and many other atrocities.

He served only two very brief prison sentences. I think it would have been better had he done a long stretch in jail. That causes people to reflect. Guys who did time confront what they did. They're not in denial.

Martin told lies too. He was active on Bloody Sunday. He did not leave the IRA in 1974. I'm tremendously sorry that he never managed to be reconciled to his victims. Right up until the end he had the chance to tell the truth about atrocities like Claudy and to clear his conscience. He chose not to.

Q. Back in IRA ranks, what did you do?

A. I tried shooting but I wasn't much good at it. I was great with explosives and not a lot of people wanted to work in that area given the risks. I bombed shops, banks, and police stations.

I developed the letter bomb in 1973. I'd seen an article in The Sunday Times about how the PLO used them. I actually blew myself up in a house in the Creggan - went right through the window and into the garden. I damaged my eye and a finger.

I was treated in a Dublin hospital. When I was there Martin visited and introduced me to the IRA GHQ figure in charge of bombing England. They said they wanted me to go to London. Hugh Feeney, Gerry Kelly and the Price sisters had just been captured after bombing the Old Bailey.

Q. Tell me about bombing England.

A. I sent dozens and dozens of letter bombs. To Downing Street, the Bank of England, the Stock Exchange, judges, generals, and the Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, whom I held responsible for Bloody Sunday. He was injured opening it. This was the politics of revenge. An eye for an eye.

Q. How do you view those actions now?

A. With horror. I was arrested and charged in 1975 and at my trial those who were injured made statements.

I had never considered that some of my targets mightn't open the letters, that secretaries would. An Irish woman in the British embassy in Washington lost a hand. Other people were blinded.

I apologised in court to the "innocent working-class victims who were accidentally injured".

I think it was the first time an IRA man had done this.

But what I am most ashamed of was planting a bomb in an Oxford Street shop. I had phoned a warning to police twice but they didn't take it seriously and told me to "f*** off". I should have gone back to the store and cleared out the customers. I didn't. It could have been an atrocity.

Q. Describe how your views on violence changed.

A. It wasn't a road to Damascus conversion, it was much more gradual. I had doubts back in Derry and I'd voted for the 1975 IRA ceasefire. But it was a Jesuit priest in Wormwood Scrubs who changed my life. He was known as an anti-Irish bigot and we were always arguing. During one big row I said to him: "Where's the proof your God exists?" He gave me a copy of the Bible. Reading the four gospels about JC (Jesus Christ) changed my life. The holy fear of God blew me away.

Eddie Daly (Bishop of Derry) sent me a book about a former SAS soldier who discovered Padre Pio and that affected me too. I repented.

Q. What did your religious conversion lead you to do?

A. I wrote to my victims to apologise. Some of them gave those letters to the News of the World and I was all over the media. In 1978 I sent a letter to Republican News saying the armed struggle was immoral. I said the war should be ended in favour of democratic politics. They refused to print it but Eddie Daly gave it to the Derry Journal, who did.

It was a very big step for an IRA member to take. There was one IRA figure on the wing who wanted me killed in my cell.

Q. How long were you in jail?

A. I received 30 life sentences plus 20 years. I spent 10 years in jail in England. One of the most positive experiences there was meeting some of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four.

They were very down and didn't know how to campaign to prove their innocence. I helped them write letters to the media. I put them in touch with the solicitor Gareth Peirce.

In 1985 I was repatriated to Northern Ireland where I spent four years in jail. I was sent to Long Kesh, where I refused to go onto the IRA wing. I didn't want to live under paramilitary control.

I was put in with sex offenders, but I think I was an example to lots of other prisoners and soon the wing was full of both republican and loyalist conforming prisoners. We were eventually moved to Maghaberry.

Q. Tell me about life after jail.

A. I went to study English at Trinity College Dublin. I later did an MSc in computer science. In 1995 I married Michelle Sweeney, a student from Chicago I had met at Trinity.

I got a job in computer software. I also edited the Big Issue and worked with the homeless. Michelle got a job in the US and moved back there. I tried to join her but I couldn't get a visa because of my IRA record.

I'd been in and out of the US for years, but after 9/11 everything changed. Michelle sought a divorce and the marriage was later annulled.

Q. What did you do after that?

A. I worked in Stockholm in IT and earned great money, but I wanted to return to Dublin. I believed I had a vocation to become a priest and entered Maynooth in 2004, but I left two years later.

I returned to working with a homeless service dealing with drug and heroin addictions.

In 2012 I married Suzie Sweeney, a Scots woman who was a medical practice manager in Co Westmeath.

Two years ago I decided to give up my job in the homeless sector to work on faith issues. Suzie did the same. We lived in Roscommon for a while, but now we move around. We are currently based in Spain.

I give talks about my life story and repentance to students on behalf of a Spanish charity whose patron is tennis star Rafael Nadal.

Q. In a 2016 RTE interview, while continuing to oppose "armed struggle", you voiced strong republican views against partition and spoke of "the territorial integrity of Ireland". You said you didn't vote Sinn Fein but expressed admiration for those in the party who "risked their lives to bring peace". You now oppose republican politics and denounce Sinn Fein. Why have your opinions changed?

A. I've outgrown the territory argument of republicanism. It's a very powerful one but I think politics should be about uniting hearts and minds, not a piece of land. John Hume nailed it a long time ago.

I was a strong supporter of the peace process and gave Sinn Fein the benefit of the doubt. I became very disillusioned with them when they pulled out of Stormont. They continue to stay out at a time nationalists most need a voice.

Also, I made a programme for RTE which led families of people killed in IRA bombs to approach me seeking help. I was shocked to find Sinn Fein was doing nothing for them. I think I'd been fooled into believing they would give victims the restitution of truth.

The Volunteer: A Former IRA Man's True Story by Shane Paul O'Doherty, Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Agency, £9.50

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