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Repentant IRA Bomber Rebuilds Life as Man of Letters in College

February 18, 1990|PAUL MaJENDIE | REUTERS

DUBLIN — Shane Paul O'Doherty used to make letter bombs for the IRA. Today he is a student leader pursuing an English degree at Dublin's Trinity College.

He wrote apologies to his maimed and mutilated victims, renounced violence and, after 15 years in jail, came out to start a new life.

O'Doherty, now a frenetically energetic 34-year-old eagerly making up for lost time, joined the Irish Republican Army as an idealistic teen-ager.

Swept away by a romantic idea of a guerrilla group manning the barricades to protect Northern Ireland's Catholic minority, he was steeped in the bloody history of Irish independence.

The impressionable son of a middle-class Catholic schoolteacher in Londonderry, he left a letter for posterity under the floorboards of his room, pledging to be an IRA martyr ready to die for Ireland.

"I look back now with horror. I am now very wary of extreme chauvinism and patriotism," he said, his disillusionment with that cause total.

"I am totally opposed to all violence," he said in an interview in Trinity's basement coffee room. "It horrifies me to look back at all those shattered bodies."

After studying English in prison, he was accepted by Trinity, which was founded in Dublin in 1591.

"To paramilitaries, I now argue on the productivity level--we can look back on 20 years of violence and see that it has totally failed.

"There is also a moral and philosophical argument. I do have basic Christian beliefs. I have been deeply influenced by Quaker doctrines but I do not like labels."

Almost 3,000 people have died in the last 20 years in the IRA campaign to oust the British from Northern Ireland and in sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants in the province.

Once the articulate O'Doherty turned his back on violence, a string of British politicians and churchmen fought for years to gain an early release for a man given 30 life terms for his crimes.

His letter-bomb victims ranged from the late British Home Secretary Reginald Maudling to a brigadier, a judge and a secretary at the British Embassy in Washington, whose hand was blown off.

"I am the only person in the history of the Northern Ireland conflict who ever wanted to apologize to his victims," said O'Doherty, a striking figure with curly red hair and beard.

What did his victims think after O'Doherty was released last September and launched with enormous energy into his new university life?

Derek Woodward, a former security officer at the Bank of England who lost an eye and a hand after opening one of the letter bombs, has not worked since being maimed.

"I feel so annoyed that Mr. O'Doherty comes out, goes to university and carries on a perfectly lovely life . . . but I have still got to serve my life sentence," was his reaction to the release.

At Trinity, O'Doherty was elected unopposed to the student union as National Question Officer, whose responsibility is organizing meetings on political issues.

Getting people in the Irish Republic to care passionately about "The Troubles in the North" is an uphill climb, he said. "The North is a no-no. People just don't want to know."

O'Doherty, who also works as a free-lance journalist and is writing his autobiography, has staged a public debate between himself and Gusty Spence, a Protestant paramilitary leader who served 18 years for killing a Catholic barman.

He wants to invite Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, to talk at Trinity as well as Gordon Wilson, who touched the hearts of millions around the world when he prayed to forgive the IRA bombers who killed his daughter in the 1988 Enniskillen war memorial massacre.

But does O'Doherty ever pause for thought or perhaps suffer a tinge of fear when opening his own mail nowadays?

"I am aware that anyone in Ireland, north or south, is a potential target for violence," he said. "I am going to die anyway. If I am to die violently, at least I will have worked for peace."

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