He joined the Provisional Irish Republican Army after the fatal shooting of his father by the British Army. John Copeland died on 31 October 1971, two days after being shot near his home in Strathroy Park in Ardoyne. John Copeland was not known to be affiliated with any paramilitary group.
Copeland has been the target of loyalist paramilitaries. In December 1996 he was seriously injured in a Ulster Defence Association car bomb attack at his home. He suffered leg and arm injuries but escaped with his life when loyalist paramilitaries planted a booby-trap beneath his car. The bomb had been made by Frankie Curry, who had been a leading figure in the Red Hand Commandos before becoming an independent dissident. Copeland later received £60,000 in compensation for the injuries he received.
On 8 February 1995, Andrew Clarke (27), a private in the British Army, was sentenced at Belfast Crown Court to ten years' imprisonment for the attempted murder of Copeland when he opened fire on mourners outside the home of deceased IRA Volunteer Thomas Begley in Belfast in October 1993.
In 2001, Copeland was refused bail at Belfast High Court on charges of kidnapping, false imprisonment, assault and threatening to kill another person. The charges arose from the abduction of a man from a betting shop in Ardoyne. Copeland denied all charges. The charges was withdrawn in August 2002.
- "Prominent Republican denied bail". RTÉ News. 31 August 2001. Retrieved 19 July 2007.
- John Copeland profile, CAIN.ulst.ac.uk; accessed 28 June 2017.
- "North Belfast woman on UDA hit list". An Phoblacht/Republican News. 25 September 2002. Retrieved 19 July 2007.
- "A series of articles from the Irish News marking the fourth anniversary of the murder of Rosemary Nelson". Irish News. March 2003. Archived from the original on 7 June 2007. Retrieved 19 July 2007.
- Henry McDonald & Jim Cusack, UDA – Inside the Heart of Loyalist Terror, Dublin: Penguin Ireland, 2004, pp. 287-88
- "Senior Republican figure charged with kidnap". RTÉ News. 24 August 2001. Retrieved 19 July 2007.
- "Draft Chronology of the Conflict - 1995". CAIN. 8 February 1995. Retrieved 19 July 2007.
- Padraig MacDabhaid (27 May 1999). "British held liable for soldier attack". An Phoblacht/Republican News. Retrieved 19 July 2007.
- "IRA bosses force out godfather of terror". Sunday People. 22 June 2003. Retrieved 16 October 2016.