Thursday, 22 July 2004

Western Morning News (Plymouth) - Solo protesters who became a dads' army

T HEY'RE the "super-hero" dads who dress up as Spiderman, Batman and Robin and camp out on the rafters of the Tamar Bridge. They've sat out the skin-biting cold of nights atop cranes, and even scaled the Royal Courts of Justice.

Their fondness for heights as a platform for protest is matched by the bitter humour of their costumes.

And one of their number, Ron Davis, catapulted them into the national spotlight by peppering Tony Blair with purple flour in the House of Commons.

Yesterday, up to 100 members of Fathers 4 Justice were threatening more protests, and risking imprisonment, over a Government Green Paper aimed at giving fathers greater access to their children.

Significantly, it did not include any legal presumption to shared parenting and was condemned as "playing politics with children's lives".

This is all dramatic stuff.

Anyone who dismisses the campaigners of Fathers 4 Justice as comic sensation-seekers has overlooked their passionate seriousness. They liken their separation from their children following divorce to a "living bereavement". And they are as well organised as they are motivated.

Their tactics have been vindicated, because F4J, as it is snappily known, has become a phenomenon - so much so that it has even been compared with the civil rights movements of the 1960s. That's how rapidly it has progressed from a few dads whispering of revolution to an organisation that claims up to 10,000 members, and is expanding into Holland, Australia and the USA.

Matt O'Connor, who founded Fathers 4 Justice in December 2002, explained: "It's quite astonishing the sea-change that has come about since F4J came on the scene. We've got so many people wanting to join that we are struggling to cope." He set up F4J along Greenpeace lines with a strategy of attention-grabbing "direct action" protests. These were to be the vehicle for the message.

The gravity of that message has now been underlined with the group's own document - "A Blueprint for Family Law in the 21st Century: The Case for Urgent, Radical Reform".

It sets out the heartbreaking effects of British family law on fathers, mothers, grandparents - but especially children. F4J argues that there should be an automatic presumption in law that both separated parents should have equal contact to their children, unless there are demonstrable reasons otherwise, such as the threat of violence or abuse. The document sets out ten articles for a Bill of Rights for the Family which it wants enshrined in law.

Mr O'Connor said: "Our campaign is for equality between both sexes. We want justice for mothers and fathers." The Tories have backed the call for equal parenting rights - and the Government has been moved to respond with its Green Paper.

That's how far this issue has moved up the national agenda. It is a world removed from a campaign that began with scrawled slogans on placards, solitary fathers chaining themselves, suffragette-like, to railings, or picketing judges' country homes on a Sunday afternoon.

It's happened with great speed, and it was activists in the Westcountry who were at the forefront - not least 45-year-old Mark Harris, who battled for ten years for access to his daughters, and went through a record 133 hearings.

He is an unlikely rebel - a driving instructor from Plympton, Plymouth. But Matt O' Connor describes the man who was often dismissed as a crank as a "trail-blazer".

Mr Harris formed Dads Against Discrimination, a forerunner of F4J, and set about maximising publicity for fathers' rights. It culminated in a hunger strike after he was jailed for contempt of court.

He said: "The fathers' rights movement started here in Devon with protests at judges' houses, and it's developed very well. I was just an ordinary man who wanted to see his children. What the courts did wasn't for the benefit of my kids. But I wouldn't give up and I wouldn't go away." His eldest daughter, aged 17, now lives with him, and he has good contact with the two others, aged 15 and 13. So if he's now a "fit" father, what's different from ten years ago? He says there would be no need for a change in family law if judges applied existing law fairly.

"The natural father has to prove before the courts that he should see them. Even when he's clearly a loving parent, he has to apply and be assessed. It's absurd and cruel," he said.

He believes those early protests created an unstoppable momentum. They were also tapping into wider social symptoms. One reason they converged into a movement was that for each maverick there were many more aggrieved fathers watching from the touchline. British society had changed so radically within a generation that the breakdown of relationships had gone from being an issue concerning scattered individuals to a social problem.

The statistics point up the scale of it. There were more than 147,000 divorces in England and Wales in 2002, the highest since 1996. F4J calculates that 650 children a day have parents who separate or divorce - 237,250 children were affected in 2001. And 40 per cent of marriages end in separation.

That stacks up to a lot of anguish, broken homes, careers cut short and financial hardship.

Jolly Stanesby, 38, from Ivybridge, has become one of F4J's most prolific protesters, spending three days up a crane in Exeter last September, three days on Tower Bridge in December, and seven days up the Tamar Bridge in January.

He's been campaigning for greater access to his five-year-old daughter, and said: "Everyone is either affected or knows someone who is. I spent a day on the roof of the family court in Plymouth, and the fireman who came up on the ladder said: 'Don't worry, I'm going through the same thing'. We've had policemen at the bridge protests who say: 'We've got to do our jobs and bring you down, but we wish we could be up there with you'." He believes the protests have become more spectacular the more that people feel they have nothing left to lose. But that does not mean that change might even yet be painfully slow in coming.

For the "super-hero" dads who feel they can only make their voices heard by taking to the bridges and rooftops, each day of waiting is too long.

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