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Joe Doherty Corner: The Troubles in America

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Irish Echo Photographs; AIA 045; box 2, folder 26; Archives of Irish America, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University

In 1990, the New York City Council renamed the intersection of Pearl and Park South Streets in Lower Manhattan “Joseph Doherty Corner.” Typically streets are renamed to honor the deceased and to acknowledge a significant connection or contribution to the local community. Joseph Doherty Corner, an intersection near the Metropolitan Correctional Center, recognized a living man, and the action was one of protest. Although widely covered in the media, a fuller picture can be found in our collections.

Joseph Doherty was born in the New Lodge area of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and joined the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the 1970s. While part of a unit known as the “M60 Gang,” Doherty was involved in an attack that resulted in the death of Captain Herbert Westmacott, one of the highest-ranking members of the Special Air Service (SAS) in Northern Ireland. The trial against Doherty and others implicated began in May of 1981, but in June he and seven other prisoners (including Angelo Fusco, also on trial for Westmacott’s murder) escaped from Crumlin Road Prison. Doherty crossed into the Republic of Ireland and then to New York using a false passport, after which he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to life in prison.
While in New York, Doherty worked on various construction jobs and tended bar until he was eventually arrested by the FBI in 1983. For the next nine years, a series of legal battles waged, and Doherty’s case became a constellation of highly charged issues, including immigration, Thatcherism, the definition of a political prisoner, Irish American ethnic identity, and ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland. While incarcerated, he fought both extradition and deportation, until a 5 – 3 decision by the United States Supreme Court cleared the way for his eventual deportation to Northern Ireland in 1992.

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Irish Echo Photographs; AIA 045; box 2, folder 26; Archives of Irish America, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University

Doherty attempted to claim political asylum, and also asserted that he was immune to extradition because Westmacott was killed as part of political military act. In anticipation of Nelson Mandela’s 1990 visit to New York City, human rights attorney and Irish American activist Frank Durkan wrote to then-mayor David Dinkins, explicitly comparing Mandela and Doherty and suggesting a prison visit: “A short distance from your office, another political prisoner is about to begin his eighth year of incarceration although never having been convicted of – or even charged with – a crime in the United States (Letter dated June 14, 1990; Paul O’Dwyer Papers; AIA 069; box 2, folder 22; Archives of Irish America, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University). The US Department of Justice also sought to deport Doherty for entering the country illegally, with American diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom a significant presence looming in the backdrop. After his deportation and subsequent incarceration in Crumlin Road Prison and later the Maze, he was released in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
Doherty’s was not the only case of its kind, but his did become a cause célèbre for many sympathizers and a rallying point for supporters of a united Irish republic. Politicians visited him, supporters sent birthday cards, protesters staged demonstrations outside the British Embassy in Midtown, a benefit concert was held on his behalf, and amidst controversy, the intersection outside his cell was renamed in an effort to call attention to his situation. Following his deportation, Congressman Peter T. King (then Comptroller for Nassau County and also the chairman of the American Committee for a United Ireland) referred to the decision as a “disgrace,” stating, “The Bush Administration has really turned its back on America’s tradition of being a sanctuary for political refugees. They’ve allowed their interests with the British Foreign Office to impede justice.”

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Irish Echo Photographs; AIA 045; box 2, folder 26; Archives of Irish America, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University

The physical vestiges of this historical moment are scattered throughout our collections, presented through multiple perspectives. One of the strengths of our Archives of Irish America is a small but growing group of collections concerning Irish American engagement with the Troubles and the peace process in Northern Ireland, with a focus on nationalist or republican ideology. The personal papers of Frank Durkan and Paul O’Dwyer, both Irish American human rights attorneys from the Bernstein & O’Dwyer law firm, are particularly rich resources that contain a wealth of documentation on not only Doherty’s case, but others like it, and the broader international context of which it is a part. While the majority of scholarship and media coverage concerning American intervention in the Troubles often centers on higher profile diplomatic relations, our collections document the individuals and organizations who labored on the ground or behind the scenes in these efforts. You may not know their names, but without their perseverance the larger dialogue of the peace process may not have been possible.

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