Love it or hate it, there is no denying Fathers 4 Jus- tice has had a phenomenal year. "We've created a monster," admits Matt O'Connor, the group's founder. "It's exceeded my wildest expectations."
O'Connor set up Fathers 4 Justice in 2002, although it is only this year that the group has come to enjoy the sort of recognition most charities take decades to achieve. "At first, people were shit-scared of breaking the law," O'Connor says. Evidently, those fears have been overcome. The organisation, which has 12,000 members in the UK, now stretches as far as Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and Finland. Its star is set to rise further next week, when 2,000 members dressed as Father Christmas will demonstrate outside Buckingham Palace.
Fathers 4 Justice's cause has been helped by an unexpected ally - David Blunkett, who is battling to gain access to his ex-lover Kimberly Quinn's two-year-old boy, whom he believes is his son. O'Connor thinks the case is "manna from heaven". He says: "It's the best Christmas present we could have asked for. It shows that anyone can find themselves in this position.
We have already offered to fast-track his Fathers 4 Justice membership and throw in a Santa outfit. My only reservation is that people may not get an accurate picture of family law, because being Home Secretary obviously helps his case. My jaw was on the floor when I heard how quickly it went to court."
The group has achieved its high profile on a shoestring budget. Fathers 4 Justice has received just £40,000 from membership fees and small donations over the past two years and O'Connor has put in around £50,000 of his own money. This may help explain the organisation's shock tactics, such as getting members to dress as superheroes and occupy landmarks such as London Bridge. Such stunts have guaranteed coverage, but not all of it has been positive.
Gaby Hinsliff, political editor of The Observer, warned recently: "Fathers 4 Justice is in danger of combusting under the weight of its own publicity.
Public opinion is going to turn against it." However, O'Connor dismisses this view. "In every public opinion poll I've seen we've enjoyed at least 75 per cent support," he claims.
Much has been made of the backgrounds of some of the group's members, including O'Connor. Jason Hatch, who scaled Buckingham Palace dressed as Batman, has been accused of violence and O'Connor was arrested after a row with his ex-wife seven years ago. No charges were brought and O'Connor claims they now get on "famously". O'Connor runs his own design and marketing agency and has a background in PR, so he was prepared for such revelations and vehemently defends Hatch, saying: "The only thing relevant to me is that Jason is a caring, loving father. Most people in public life are not saints; the private lives of our members are probably no worse than those of most Tory MPs. I've had a lot of stuff thrown at me. I knew it might happen, so I put humour into our campaign to counteract the negativity."
Whether humour offers adequate protection from the scandal-hungry media remains to be seen. O'Connor has received tip-offs about undercover journalists trying to infiltrate the group. "Now I have to try to make sure nobody says anything at meetings that could be construed as remotely sexist," he says.
O'Connor is clearly under pressure, juggling Fathers 4 Justice with his day job and visits to his children, and he is aware the run-up to the General Election will be a critical time. "I haven't had any time off for a year and I'm not sleeping much," he admits. "I have given myself until the end of 2005. Then, if I'm still alive, I will re-evaluate things."
But O'Connor has never been tempted to take the less confrontational approach of Fathers Direct, whom he brands "government lackeys". Families Need Fathers is also moderate, but admits it has benefited from Fathers 4 Justice's campaign. A spokesman says: "It's frustrating that Fathers 4 Justice gets all the publicity, but it has opened an argument that did not exist two years ago."
An accusation levelled at Fathers 4 Justice is that it is misogynist, and O'Connor's insistence that the NSPCC is a feminist organisation does not help his case. But he is adamant his group, despite its name, does not only take the side of dads, saying mothers and grandparents account for a quarter of its membership.
O'Connor says: "We are not saying dads are better than mums - they can be just as vindictive following the break-up of a marriage. It's not about gender: both parents should have equal access."
He is bewildered by the reluctance to make equal access a foundation of family law. "I really don't see it as radical. The workforce is made up of 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women, so why shouldn't it be the same with access? It's far more disruptive and cruel for a child to miss a parent than to split its time between two."
Such arguments risk getting lost in the publicity Fathers 4 Justice's stunts generate at the moment, but O'Connor insists this is part of a careful strategy. He compares Fathers 4 Justice to the US civil rights movement: "I did a lot of research before I set up the group and as Martin Luther King said: 'First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you get what you want'. No doubt we will make mistakes, but what matters is that we are moving in the right direction."