By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Joe Doherty, the former republican prisoner who fought extradition and then deportation from the U.S. for nine years, has welcomed a restricted amnesty given to four IRA men who escaped from Crumlin Road jail in 1981, and called for the same for the many others still on the run from the British authorities.
Doherty was among a group of eight IRA men who broke out of Crumlin Jail in 1981 while awaiting trial for the killing of SAS Capt. Herbert Westmacott during a shoot-out on the Antrim Road in 1980. They were convicted in their absence.
He was subsequently arrested while working in a New York City bar and fought the longest extradition case in U.S. legal history before he was sent back to the H-Blocks in 1992, where he spent almost seven years in jail before being released at the end of 1998 under terms of the Good Friday agreement.
Doherty welcomed the decision to grant an amnesty to fellow escapees Tony Sloan, Angelo Fusco, Dingus Magee and Robert Campbell, but said that there are still hundreds of people waiting to hear if they too are to be given amnesties.
"There are hundreds of people living all over Ireland waiting to hear if they can come home," Doherty said last week. "I personally believe that the British are just being vindictive in their refusal to allow everyone to come home.
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"This should have happened months ago but the Brits have deliberately dragged their heels just to slow things down."
Having spent a total of 23 years in jail, Doherty says that he knows better than most just how vindictive the British government can be.
"There is no doubt that Margaret Thatcher made a point of victimizing us because of our case. Even when I was sent back to the H Blocks, the years I spent in jail in America were not taken into account.
"If it hadn’t been for the agreement, I would still have been in jail now. But in some ways I was lucky at least when I got out I was a free man and could go where I wanted.
"Most of these guys and many more like them have all been jailed in the South and done their tim,e but the Brits refused to take any of this into account. They couldn’t come home when a relative was in hospital or had died.
"They were free men south of the border but couldn’t set foot in the North because the Brits refused to give an inch."
Doherty said that the British government’s policy of drip-feeding previously agreed confidence-building measures to the nationalist community threatened to put support for the Good Friday agreement in jeopardy.
"I personally believe that the Brits are endangering everything that has been achieved by this mealy-mouthed attitude," Doherty said. "They signed up to a deal to end the conflict in 1998 but have dragged their heels ever since.
"While this week’s amnesty is to be welcomed a lot more needs to be done a lot quicker if the Good Friday agreement is to keep its support in the nationalist community."