Joe Doherty (born 20 January 1955) is a former volunteer in the Belfast Brigade of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) who escaped during his 1981 trial for killing a member of the Special Air Service (SAS) in 1980. He was arrested in the United States in 1983, and became a cause célèbre while fighting an ultimately unsuccessful nine-year legal battle against extradition and deportation, with a street corner in New York City being named after him.
Background and IRA activity:
The son of a docker, Doherty was born on 20 January 1955 in New Lodge, Belfast. Doherty left school aged 14 and began work on the docks and as an apprentice plumber, before being arrested in 1972 on his seventeenth birthday under the Special Powers Act. Doherty was interned on the prison ship HMS Maidstone and Long Kesh Detention Centre, and while interned heard of the events of Bloody Sunday in Derry, where 14 civil rights protesters were shot dead by the British Army. This led to him joining the IRA after he was released in June 1972. In the mid-1970s Doherty was convicted of possession of explosives and sentenced to six years imprisonment in Long Kesh. He was released in December 1979.
After his release Doherty became part of a four-man active service unit nicknamed the “M60 gang” due to their use of an M60 heavy machine gun, along with Angelo Fusco and Paul Magee. On 9 April 1980 the unit lured the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) into an ambush on Stewartstown Road, killing one constable and wounding two others. On 2 May the unit were planning another attack and had taken over a house on Antrim Road, when an eight-man patrol from the SAS arrived in plain clothes, after being alerted by the RUC. A car carrying three SAS members went to the rear of the house, and another car carrying five SAS members arrived at the front of the house. As the SAS members at the front of the house exited the car the IRA unit opened fire with the M60 machine gun from an upstairs window, hitting Captain Herbert Westmacott in the head and shoulder. Westmacott, who was killed instantly, was the highest-ranking member of the SAS killed in Northern Ireland. The remaining SAS members, armed with Colt Commando automatic rifles, submachine guns and Browning pistols, returned fire but were forced to withdraw. Magee was apprehended by the SAS members at the rear of the house while attempting to prepare the IRA unit’s escape in a transit van, while the other three IRA members remained inside the house. More members of the security forces were deployed to the scene, and after a brief siege the remaining members of the IRA unit surrendered.
Trial and escape:
The trial of Doherty and the other members of the M60 gang began in early May 1981, on charges including three counts of murder. On 10 June Doherty and seven other prisoners, including Angelo Fusco and the other members of the IRA unit, took a prison officer hostage at gunpoint in Crumlin Road Jail. After locking the officer in a cell, the eight took other officers and visiting solicitors hostage, also locking them in cells after taking their clothing. Two of the eight wore officers’ uniforms while a third wore clothing taken from a solicitor, and the group moved towards the first of three gates separating them from the outside world. They took the officer on duty at the gate hostage at gunpoint, and forced him to open the inner gate. An officer at the second gate recognised one of the prisoners and ran into an office and pressed an alarm button, and the prisoners ran through the second gate towards the outer gate. An officer at the outer gate tried to prevent the escape but was attacked by the prisoners, who escaped onto Crumlin Road. As the prisoners were moving towards the car park where two cars were waiting, an unmarked RUC car pulled up across the street outside Crumlin Road Courthouse. The RUC officers opened fire, and the prisoners returned fire before escaping in the waiting cars. Two days after the escape, Doherty was convicted in absentia and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum recommended term of thirty years.
Extradition and deportation battle:
Doherty escaped across the border into the Republic of Ireland, and then travelled to the United States on a false passport. He lived with an American girlfriend in Brooklyn and New Jersey, working on construction sites and as a bartender at Clancy’s Bar in Manhattan, where he was arrested by the FBI on 28 June 1983. Doherty was imprisoned in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, and a legal battle ensued with the British government seeking to extradite him back to Northern Ireland. Doherty claimed he was immune from extradition as the killing of Westmacott was a political act, saying “It was an operation that was typical of all operations where we set up an ambush of a British military convoy… It is a war, and this was a military action”, and in 1985 federal judge John E. Sprizzo ruled Doherty could not be extradited as the killing was a “political offense”. Doherty’s legal battle continued as the United States Department of Justice then attempted to deport him for entering the country illegally.
Doherty remained in custody at the Metropolitan Correctional Center and attempted to claim political asylum, and on 15 June 1988 the Attorney General Edwin Meese overturned an earlier ruling by the Federal Board of Immigration Appeals that Doherty could be deported to the Republic of Ireland, and ordered his deportation to Northern Ireland. In February 1989 new Attorney General Dick Thornburgh chose not to support the decision made by his predecessor, and asked lawyers for Doherty and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to submit arguments for a review of the decision and Doherty’s claim for asylum. By this time Doherty’s case was a cause célèbre with his sympathisers including over 130 Congressmen and a son of then President of the United States George H. W. Bush, and in 1990 a street corner near the Metropolitan Correctional Center was named after him.
In August 1991, Doherty was transferred to a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and on 16 January 1992 the Supreme Court of the United States overturned a 1990 Federal Appeals Court ruling by a 5-to-3 decision, paving the way for his deportation. On 19 February 1992 Doherty was deported to Northern Ireland, despite pleas to delay the deportation from members of Congress, Mayor of New York City David Dinkins, and the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, John Joseph O’Connor. Doherty was returned to Crumlin Road Jail before being transferred to HM Prison Maze, and was released from prison on 6 November 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. After his release Doherty became a community worker specialising in helping disadvantaged young people. In 2006, he appeared in the BBC television show Facing the Truth opposite the relatives of a soldier killed in the Warrenpoint ambush.