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profile; David McTaggart; Geoffrey Lean on one of the few people capable of stopping the Pacific nuclear tests
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The Independent Online
IN THE Pacific last Sunday morning, just before Greenpeace entered the exclusion zone around France's nuclear test site at Mururoa atoll, a small inflatable dinghy took to the water and slipped silently away. At the helm was the little-known man who has steered Greenpeace to its present position as the world's most famous environmental group.

The French never saw the dinghy go. It was launched from a 39ft timber ketch, the Vega, which stayed outside their territorial waters while attention was focused on the organisation's trespassing flagship, the Rainbow Warrior II. Two hours later 150 masked commandos rammed the ship, filled it with tear gas and stormed it, 10 years to the day since the French secret service blew up its predecessor in Auckland harbour.

Four inflatables had been launched from the flagship; three were intercepted and confiscated and the crew of the fourth were arrested after they had managed to get on to the atoll and scale the rig used to drill the holes for the atomic explosions which France now plans to restart after a three- year lull.

But it is what Greenpeace refers to only as "the fifth inflatable" that threatens the real trouble. As the rest of the fleet turned away from the atoll, it kept going. There were three people on board: Chris Robinson, Henk Haazen - both veterans of the Auckland blast - and a man going by the name of David Fraser who is in fact David McTaggart, the honorary chairman of Greenpeace.

McTaggart and his companions carried radiation-detection devices, protective suits, respirators and enough food for a month. They aim to hide on the 60-acre atoll, daring the French to carry out the test while they are there. They have so far sent back one radio message to say they are safe. The French say that they have "searched the whole atoll" and failed to find them.

To one of McTaggart's oldest colleagues this is "swashbuckling at its best". It is also a return in the same boat by the prickly but extraordinarily persistent environmentalist to the waters where he effectively launched Greenpeace in the early 1970s.

As he hid last week, the strategy he forged - combining ''direct action'' with political pressure - was attracting its most heavyweight support to date. Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, fresh from chiding John Major over the Brent Spar, protested to President Jacques Chirac of France at their summit on Tuesday. The President of Italy and the prime ministers of the Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland, Finland, Austria, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand have all objected to the resumption of testing, though Mr Major refused to do so and the Foreign Office opined: "We do not see it as something for us to comment on".

Four out of every five New Zealanders are now boycotting French products. Both New Zealand and Australia have suspended military agreements with France. MEPs shouted down President Chirac when he tried to explain his policy to the European Parliament last week. Fresh from its triumph over the Brent Spar, Greenpeace is showing more forcefully than ever that it can fight governments while enlisting other governments on its side.

McTaggart, the man behind it all, is a complex, very private figure. He is remarkably inarticulate, punctuating his conversation with "phewwws", "psstts" and other sound effects. He does not make speeches, refuses interviews and thinks of profiles as "threats". Close associates say that they do not even know how many children he has. The best count is four daughters from an indeterminate number of marriages; he is currently separated.

He was born on Midsummer's Night, 1932, in Vancouver, British Colombia, to a family which he says "has a long history of Scottish Calvinism". He left school at 17 and became Canada's national badminton champion three years in succession.

By the time he came of age he was running his own construction company, "making serious money as an earth raper", says a senior Greenpeace colleague. But in 1969 a ski lodge in California which he had built and publicised blew up, taking much of his million-dollar fortune with it in damages.

Devastated by the accident, McTaggart quit business, bought the Vega and set off for the South Pacific, "vagabonding around" its islands and atolls for three years. In 1972 he saw an advertisement asking for volunteers to sail to Mururoa to protest against French nuclear testing, then carried out above ground. It had been placed by a small Vancouver-based organisation originally called the "Don't Make a Wave Committee" but renamed "Greenpeace".

McTaggart duly sailed to the atoll, anchoring in the likely fall-out path for a month. The boat was rammed by a French minesweeper and towed to Mururoa. The French took pictures of McTaggart and his crew lunching with them and claimed that the Vega had caused the accident and that they had rescued the environmentalists.

Next year a furious McTaggart was back in his repaired boat. This time the French beat him up, permanently damaging his right eye. They claimed that he had injured himself in a fall, but a crew member had taken pictures of the assault and smuggled the film out in her vagina. In the ensuing outcry France announced that all future bomb tests would be underground.

By 1980, McTaggart had begun to establish Greenpeace as an international force. After three years spent winning compensation from France, he started to set up offices in Europe for the hitherto North American organisation.

In Britain he and two colleagues - Pete Wilkinson and Allan Thornton - took root in a poky room above a sweaty South London gym, a far cry from Greenpeace's present light and handsome building winking with computer screens in fashionable Islington, north London. Wilkinson, a former Friends of the Earth campaigner, remembers how he was recruited for pounds 25 a week, though he had to spend part of his time working in a post office to pay his mortgage.

"I asked David why he had chosen me," he says. "He said he had visited Friends of the Earth and that everyone had described me as the most ornery son of a bitch that had ever worked there."

Offices in Paris and Amsterdam soon followed, and then McTaggart staged a reverse takeover of the North American operation, taking advantage of a feud between its Vancouver and San Francisco offices to call for unity, and take charge. Since then, as Wilkinson puts it, "he has embodied the spirit of Greenpeace". He, far more than anyone else, is responsible for its growth into a giant international organisation with 1,000 employees and an annual income approaching pounds 100m.

"David did not brook a lot of meetings and paper and never wrote anything down," Wilkinson says. "If he trusted you, he let you get on with it until you messed up - and then he beat you around the head or fired you."

McTaggart, Wilkinson and Thornton insisted, however, on hiring proper navigators and engineers for their actions, rather than relying on enthusiastic amateurs. And they began commissioning scientific research. Greenpeace's science is frequently criticised - often, as over the Brent Spar, justifiably so - but it is much better than in the earliest days when, the environment writer Fred Pearce recalls, "the activists preferred reading tarot cards".

Not that the battle over the New Ageists was lightly won. One campaign was abandoned in the mid-1980s after a key Greenpeace acti- vist claimed to have been advised against it, while "astral travelling", by the spirit of John Betjeman - to McTaggart's explosive fury.

An abiding image of the 1980s is of McTaggart roaming around the fringes of key environmental negotiations, almost always with the prettiest girl at the meeting on his arm, invariably playing the bemused colonial who had no idea of what was going on. It was a carefully cultivated front which often deceived his enemies.

A remarkably shrewd workaholic, he is blessed with an ability to get to the heart of an issue and to plan strategically. But he is also, as many of his former colleagues testify, extraordinarily hard to work with. "He has a ferocious temperament," Brian Fitzgerald, his close assistant for the past 10 years, says. Against much internal resistance, McTaggart moved Greenpeace into southern Europe, the Third World and even the then Soviet Union. He formed a firm relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, when he was still in the Kremlin. The organisation's office in Moscow was the first to be set up with government backing and Gorbachev went on, in retirement, to set up his own environmental organisation.

Five years ago, with his health failing from years of overwork, McTaggart retired to a farm in Italy and started driving himself, typically, to the limit of his strength, to try to produce the finest organically grown olive oil in Umbria. (He exports about 1,000 litres of it a year to Britain and the United States; it sells in some branches of Sainsbury under the label "Pax Jani".) He has retained much of his influence in Greenpeace, but it has taken President Chirac's announcement of the resumption of nuclear tests to bring him back on the world stage. Far from well and often out of breath, he fears he is dying from emphysema and made a will in New Zealand before departing for Mururoa. But his friends discount rumours that he is on a suicide mission. As Fitzgerald puts it, "he will make sure he survives to see the end of nuclear testing".