During those years, from 1983-92, Doherty became a rallying point for many Irish Americans, who saw him as a symbol of resistance to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her hard-line policies in Northern Ireland. He was also living proof that the British and U.S. governments attempts to characterize the IRA as mindless gunmen were propagandistic nonsense.
Now, he is fighting to get back to the United States, the scene of his long struggle, so far without success.
Just over two weeks ago, Doherty’s application for a visa to come to the U.S. was turned down. This is the second time that Doherty has been refused by the U.S. authorities since he got out of prison in Northern Ireland in November 1998. This time, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies had invited him to contribute to their upcoming conference in Baltimore from Nov. 7-10. Along with Alistair Little, a former loyalist paramilitary, he was asked to give a presentation to the plenary session entitled “Trauma and Reconciliation — The Case of Northern Ireland.”
“The Americans were very interested,” Doherty said last week from Belfast. “They said they’d love to have us over there.”
Equipped with a series of letters from psychiatric experts on stress and trauma, as well as the conference organizers and Mark Durkan, the deputy first minister of the Northern Ireland assembly, Doherty applied. He was called for an interview to the U.S. Consulate in Belfast. He also brought with him a list of his convictions. Included on Doherty’s conviction sheet were those of possessing explosives and murder — the latter relating to a gun battle between the IRA and the British undercover squad the Special Air Services in Belfast in 1980 during which Capt. Herbert Westmacott, a 28-year-old SAS officer, was killed.
“The interviewer was sympathetic,” Doherty said of his trip to the consulate.
He waited 10 days. Then at the beginning of September the call came saying he was not welcome back in the country where, in the 1980s, he had helped write a bit of legal and political history. His case drew attention to the conflict in Northern Ireland and led to controversial changes to the U.S.-British extradition treaties. He became an eloquent spokesman for militant Irish republicanism.
Since then, Joe Doherty has become an eloquent spokesman for reconciliation. He has gone from being a wanted IRA man to a community worker, specializing in helping troubled and disadvantaged youths. He is based in the Ashton Center in North Belfast and works in both loyalist and nationalist areas. He has been in Kosovo on a youth project and intends to return there within the coming months with a group of Catholic and Protestant youths from North Belfast.
“There are a lot of parallels between Northern Ireland and Kosovo,” Doherty said. “Talking to Serbs is a bit like talking to Unionists. There are new realities they can’t face. They resist change. It’s about identity.”
Doherty is also involved with an ex-prisoner’s group. His connection with the stress and trauma issue was made in May a year ago when he took part in meeting of the European Society for Traumatic Stress in Edinburgh. Dr. Oscar Daly of the department of psychiatry at Lagan Valley Hospital near Hillsborough, Co. Down, had invited him, along with Little, the former loyalist paramilitary, and former members of the police and British army, as well as people who had lost loved ones due to paramilitary violence, to contribute to a symposium. The symposium focused on the traumatic and stressful effects of decades of violence as seen from the viewpoints of not only those who had suffered the violence but those who had inflicted it.
The symposium made a deep impression.
“Doherty and Little were very helpful,” Daly said. “They impressed the Americans.”
Indeed, one participant from Washington, D.C., hailed it as “the most interesting presentation at the whole conference,” saying that it gave “an extremely powerful and moving account of life-and-death in your country.” It inspired the American organizers of the Baltimore conference to asked Daly if he could contribute something similar to their meeting in November. Dr. John Briere, president of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, wrote a letter to Daly in May inviting him to arrange a presentation entitled “Terrorism and reconciliation: The Case of Northern Ireland.” Briere wrote that in the light of the Sept. 11 terror attacks the presentation “would have great relevance for ISTSS and, more broadly, North Americans.”
I was especially struck with the anti-violence and pro-reconciliation focus of your Edinburgh panel, and the testimony of Mr. Doherty and Mr. Little regarding their efforts to educate youth and community regarding peaceful solutions to Northern Ireland’s continuing conflict,” he wrote.
Matthew Friedman, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Dartmouth Medical School, agreed. As a former president of ISTSS, he wrote to Daly that those who took part in the Northern Ireland symposium were “all articulate and thoughtful individuals whose spectrum of personal experiences provided a vivid narrative that was rich in historical review, raw emotional detail, and psychological insight. While courageously sharing their own painful and traumatic memories with the audience, each speaker was able to take sufficient distance from his or her own experience and to place it into a context that the audience could understand and evaluate. What was particularly valuable was that each speaker was able to show how he or she had transformed his or her personal trauma into positive action and taken subsequent steps to promote conflict resolution within Northern Ireland’s society at large. . . . Your symposium puts a very human face on a major concern of ISTSS, the extreme social and psychological consequences of civil strife and the psychological interventions needed to mitigate the extensive damage and devastation caused by such massive collective trauma.”
In April of this year, Daly wrote to an official in the U.S. Consulate office in Belfast regarding Doherty’s visa applications.
“I think we have a major opportunity to share the experiences we have had here in Northern Ireland with the world’s leading experts in the field of psychological trauma,” he wrote. Acknowledging the “difficulties” in relation to his application, Daly stressed that Doherty’s sole purpose in coming to the U.S. would be to take part in the conference.
The letter and recommendation, including one from the deputy first minister, did not succeed in overcoming the current administration’s policy on issuing visas, which has been made much tighter since 9/11. Observers also believe that because Doherty initially entered the U.S. on false papers, the likelihood of him being granted a waver is slim.
Doherty is disappointed but quietly determined.
“I’ve met a lot of ex-cops and soldiers,” he said. “We need to have an understanding. I was the man in the balaclava with the AK-47. But behind that, I was the kid who grew up during the civil rights riots with a stone in his hand. I wanted to talk about that in the U.S.”
Of course, he would like to return to the U.S. for other reasons too.
“I want to get to New York one day to thank all the people who supported me,” he said.
When called, a spokesman for the U.S. Consulate in Belfast would only say, “We can’t comment on individual cases.”