17 December 2009 Edition
Joe Doc - 40 years of republican activism
CHRISTMAS has traditionally been a time when Irish republicans think of political prisoners. Coiste na nIarchimí is the umbrella body representing the interests of republican ex-prisoners throughout the length of Ireland. One of its members is Joe Doherty (53) from New Lodge in Belfast. Joe spent nearly 24 years in prison, including a nine-year stint in a US jail fighting extradition to Ireland.
During the 1981 Hunger Strike, he was one of eight men who broke out of Crumlin Road Jail in a daring and spectacular escape.
Today, as well as working on behalf of republican ex-POWs Joe is involved in community work in his native New Lodge.
This article first appeared in the ‘North Belfast Sinn Féin Bulletin’
JOE Doherty or ‘Joe Doc’ was actually born in the Short Strand, although he was raised in the New Lodge.
His father worked at the Belfast Dock and was a member of Connolly’s/Larkin’s Irish Transport & General Workers union.
“My paternal grandfather,” said Joe, “was Edward Doherty who was the Belfast leader of the union at the beginning of the 1900s and was also a member of James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army.
“My father’s politics were working class socialism and this was passed on to me.
“My mother’s father Alex Darragh was in the British Army and fought at the Somme but on returning to Ireland he joined the IRA and fought in the west of Ireland in the Flying Columns. So my republicanism came from my mother. Republicanism cannot be separated from the socialist ideals of Connolly and I see Sinn Féin’s main role in combating poverty as an essential part of our strategy.
“Sinn Féin has certainly maintained its objectives in fighting for our community. If it didn’t I would not support the party.”
Joe’s political learning came not just from his parents but from what was happening around him as a then unionist-dominated state suppressed people’s demands for equality.
“Like most youth from the early 1960s I was influenced by the institutional discrimination that was all around us. My father urged me to immigrate to foreign shores, not wanting me to live this kind of life.
“While the 1960s civil rights gave us hope, its violent suppression convinced us that the system could not be reformed. The harsh occupation by the British military in the New Lodge and elsewhere further convinced me that armed struggle was the only alternative.”
Joe joined the Republican Movement at the end of 1970, almost 40 years ago.
“I first joined Na Fianna Éireann, the republican scout movement, and then C Company, 3rd Battalion, of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade.
Joe was interned on the Maidstone Prison Ship and then moved to Long Kesh in January 1972, where he spent several months before being released during an IRA ceasefire.
“I immediately re-joined the IRA and was again captured and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment in the Cages of Long Kesh where we had Special Category Status.
BURNING OF LONG KESH
“I was there during the burning of Long Kesh in October 1974 and witnessed the dropping of CR gas on prisoners. In fact, I am presently involved with Ceartais, a campaign group challenging the British on their use of the gas and its effects on prisoners.”
Joe was released around Christmas 1979 and again rejoined the IRA. His bout of freedom was short-lived. In 1980 he was again arrested, this time following an IRA shoot-out with the SAS on the Antrim Road in which SAS Captain Herbert Westmacott was killed.
“I was sent again into Crumlin Road Jail. The protests against the withdrawal of political status in the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s Prison were intensifying,” said the New Lodge Republican.
ESCAPE FROM THE ‘CRUM’
“We had a token protest in the Crum. These were tense times and the prelude to the hunger strikes. I was in the Crum when Bobby Sands died and it was then that we got the go-ahead to plan an escape.
“Basically, after months of intelligence gathering we smuggled guns in and planned the escape around June 1981.
“After the death of the fourth Hunger Striker, Raymond McCreesh, myself and seven other Irish republicans shot our way out of the prison.
“It was, of course, a great feeling to escape from one of the Brits top security prisons and especially cheer the lads up in the H Blocks on protest. It was with great joy that I heard that big Joe McDonnell smiled, while weak and near death, when he heard of the escape. Joe died weeks later.”
While on the run Joe ended up in New York and after a year of relative freedom was captured by the FBI and imprisoned in New York Federal Prison.
“Then began the long struggle to prevent extradition back to the North. This took nine years to complete and eventually I arrived again in the H-Blocks in 1992.”
BACK IN IRELAND
“Even though I was back in jail in the North it was great to be with republican prisoners again and to be able to see my family on a weekly basis. My family had grown due to many additional nephews and nieces since I left.
“The H-Blocks were in full flow, status had been restored, and education was a major priority amongst republican POWs. I ended up obtaining and, to my mum’s delight, my first GCSE. In fact, I ended up with a university degree before being released in 1999.
“Education and self-development was important to republicans as the politics doesn’t end at the front gate.
“When I got out it was a time of great discussion around the conflict. The first ceasefire was finally announced in 1994.
“Most of us republican prisoners, although sceptical of the Agreement, were in full support of the movement’s position. This was not the ideal agreement but it was the beginning of a process to take us to a United Ireland,” said Joe.
“Many of us knew that this kind of process was a difficult one and you had to have the vision and commitment to see it through.”
STILL IN STRUGGLE
Upon release in 1999 Joe threw his energy into work involving the republican ex-POWs and community work.
“I am presently with Coiste, an umbrella body that represents the interests of republican ex-prisoners throughout the length of Ireland.
“This work involves challenging the many discriminatory measures against former republican prisoners, which includes home insurance, travel, fostering and adoption and of course employment and welfare.”
As a Sinn Féin activist in New Lodge, Joe is well known and respected in the community.
“Although there are some republicans and republican ex-prisoners who feel uneasy about the present political process I see Sinn Féin as having the only viable and workable strategy.
“Some republicans depend too much on historical rhetoric of yesteryear rather than the practical need to utilise the present system to further the ideals and strategies of Irish republicanism.
“The latter course is thwarted with complexities but is the more challenging and forward looking. The ‘dissident’ view is based on simplicities and slogans but doesn’t offer up a strategic alternative.
“Sinn Féin is taking the most testing and difficult road, which is somewhat challenging to past policies.
“But republicanism has always been about challenging and taking risks for our people. I continue to challenge those detractors and critics to put forward an alternative to the present strategy.
“I shall always struggle for the interests of the New Lodge community and what I believe is the best way forward for the Irish people.
“This is how I began almost 40 years ago and I shall continue to work on their behalf.”
RELEASE: Joe threw his energy into work involving the republican ex-POWs and community work