By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Fit, looking healthy and at home in Belfast for the first time in 18 years, Joe Doherty is already looking forward to returning to New York to thank the many people who helped him.
But the New Lodge Road on the north side of Belfast is undeniably still home, and it’s here he intends to live and work, permanently, whatever the attractions elsewhere.
“Now I’m free again, I’ve been invited over to ceremonially take the street sign down with my name on it, but it all depends on the State department,” he said Tuesday, referring to the sign “Joe Doherty Corner” outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, where he spent nearly nine years without being formally charged.
“I wasn’t extradited — I was deported, and there are the legal formalities to sort out. But I’m really looking forward to meeting all the people who helped me out and who I never met.
“I have no hard feelings toward Rudy Giuliani [the current New York City mayor who prosecuted him as district attorney]. He was just doing his job. I particularly want to thank [former New York City Mayor] David Dinkins and [Comptroller] Alan Hevesi, both of whom have been good enough to get in touch since I was freed.”
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Doherty, who was freed from the Maze Prison on Friday as part of the Good Friday peace agreement, spoke while relaxing in his mother’s front room in a tiny house on a narrow, terraced street near the New Lodge Road, a home that hasn’t changed much since it was built in the 1930s.
A half mile away is the house on the Antrim Road where the now-famous IRA ambush took place in May 1980 in which SAS Capt. Herbert Westmacott was killed. Doherty, who’s now 43, was convicted for his role in the killing but escaped in 1981. He was sentenced in absentia to life in prison. In 1982, he made his way to New York. He was arrested there in June 1983 and fought extradition, then deportation, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before finally being returned in February 1992.
Doherty didn’t lose a single court appeal in the U.S. until the last one. In nine years of legal wrangling, his case became a cause celebre for thousands of Irish Americans and politicians of all stripes who courted their vote.
On Tuesday, Doherty took the time to reflect on his long struggle and bask in the attention of loved ones.
Pale and frail, Maureen Doherty, his mother, still can’t get used to the fact that her son is back with her. “We never thought we’d see the day — and yet here it is. It’s hard to believe,” she said.
I’d arranged to give him a lift from his home in the New Lodge to meet political comrades in Conway Mill in the Lower Falls Road. We talked intensively, swapping stories and reminiscences of mutual friends as we sat in his mother’s house and, and, later, as we traveled by car along the Antrim Road, under the Shankill and up the Falls, past Divis Tower.
Doherty was dressed in regulation ex-prisoner’s garb — immaculate white trainers, pressed blue jeans and gray T-shirt. He looked relaxed and said he was looking to the future.
His plans are fairly fluid, he said, but include finishing his Open University degree in Social Science, keeping fit at a local gym and working, somehow, in the local community.
“I was born here,” he said. “I don’t want to tour the world. I want to continue living here and probably dying here. I want above all to make a contribution.”
He is finding opening doors, dealing with cash and traffic a little difficult to get used to. As we left his mother’s house, he fumbled with the lock. “No screws to open doors for me anymore,” he said, laughing.
“Coming out of jail, you notice the high unemployment, the lack of confidence people have”, he said later as we passed an empty lot covered in rubbish and debris.
“There’s nowhere here for the children to play,” he said as we narrowly avoided an urchin dashing across the road in chase of a ball.
Further on, the large gable wall with a mural bearing his portrait loomed. He appeared embarrassed by it and suggested that it might be replaced with another honoring local culture.
We traveled down the Antrim Road, within a few hundred yards of the Crumlin Road Jail, now mothballed, but from where he escaped in 1981 before traveling to New York.
Some of Belfast hasn’t changed much, he said, although he admitted that there are other areas that appear to have changed drastically as we hit the central ring road, which was built in 1981.
Since he was freed, he’s had an impromptu welcome home party and visited family members in Dundalk. Now he’s home for good and beginning to think hard about his plans.
He knows it’s going to be difficult, adjusting to the complexities and confusion of life outside a rigid jail routine. He knows there will be highs and lows.
He’s been in touch with an ex-prisoners group and will be getting advice on settling back down into the messy reality of ordinary life in Belfast.
But Joe Doherty is a survivor. If he can handle all that life has so far thrown at him, he can surely handle freedom.