By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The U.S. State Department has been accused of double standards in the granting of visas by a former teenage IRA activist who served 14 years for bombing offenses and has now renounced violence.
Derryman Shane Paul O’Doherty, 44, who is married to an American woman, is seeking a fair system of individual assessment of former paramilitaries who apply to visit or live in America.
O’Doherty’s case is being supported by the SDLP leader John Hume and has been put before President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Jim Steinberg, the deputy national security advisor.
O’Doherty, who now lives in Dublin, was jailed for letter bomb offenses when he was 20 but he has had no contact with the IRA for almost 25 years.
In an autobiography in 1993 he called for an end to violence and he has been a strong advocate of the peace process.
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On his release from prison, he studied English in Trinity College, where he met his wife, Dr. Michelle O’Doherty of Chicago, who is now a lecturer in Medieval English at UCD.
They married in 1995 and he is now studying for a masters degree in computer science at UCD.
O’Doherty says his treatment in seeking visas to the United States contrasts with that accorded to Sinn Fein personnel, some of whom are wanted for questioning about paramilitary offenses and who have received three-year U.S. visas since the Good Friday peace agreement.
O’Doherty, meanwhile, still has to seek waivers from the embassy in Dublin and has only been given visas that allow for a maximum 21-day stay.
"Despite renouncing violence and being married to an American, I am under a lifetime ban and cannot lead a normal life with Michelle," O’Doherty said. "An example of the sort of problems I face were when Michelle’s father, Jim Sweeney, fell off a building in Chicago. She is his only child and was able to travel over within 24 hours and to see him in intensive care in hospital — but I couldn’t go.
"I have to present myself at the embassy with my Irish passport and pay $90. About six weeks later a phone call arrives from the embassy to collect my passport and I get a maximum stay of 21 days, which, in effect, is 20 days because they want me out by the 20th day.
"I have no right of access as a person married to an American and they tell up front that I am banned for life. I am merely getting in on a waiver which has no future potential to be anything else but that. It is a grace and favor arrangement.
"John Hume has been trying to have the situation changed for almost two years and last August Michelle and her father brought it up with President Clinton when they met him at a fund-raising dinner."
O’Doherty said no progress had been made on a bill introduced by Rep. Donald Payne to allow former paramilitaries to undergo individual assessment.
"The Americans are on the one hand telling the people in the North and South to accept the release of every single paramilitary prisoner but at the same time are refusing to accept someone like me into the country who renounced violence years ago," O’Doherty said. "It is an extraordinary double standard. I don’t get any support at all from Sinn Fein, so I have no power in pressing my case. I am in a sort of non-person situation. It is very disappointing."