19 December 2002 Edition

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A lifetime fighting for his community

Joe Doherty today


An Phoblacht has recieved many inquiries from our friends and comrades in America asking how Joe Doherty has been doing since his release from prison. Joe made many friends during his time in prison in the US, where he fought against extradition to the North.

Joe and seven others escaped from the Crumlin Road jail back in 1981 and while some of his comrades were later recaptured in Ireland, Joe made it to America and for a short time he lived in New York City. That is, until the day the FBI showed up with a warrant for his arrest.

He spent the next nine years fighting extradition back to the Six Counties on the grounds that he was a political prisoner.

Joe remained incarcerated in the New York Correctional Centre as he waited for each appeal to be heard and during his time inside, Joe and his case gained support from many people.

When Joe lost his final appeal he was returned to Ireland, where he spent several years in the H Blocks until his release under the Good Friday Agreement in December 1998.

On his release, Joe returned to the neighbourhood of his youth - the New Lodge Road area of North Belfast - and began the difficult process of putting his life back together. He had gone to jail at the age of 17 and had spent more than half his life in British prisons.

Youth work

Joe Doherty did not emerge from prison without an education. Like many republican POWs, he had spent his time inside learning about the things which interested him most and getting the higher education he had been denied as a youth. At the time of his release, Joe had a degree in social science but understandably lacked the practical skills to go with it.

His old friend Paul O'Neill (who was from the same neighbourhood as Joe) had been busy too. He had just published a research paper on ex-prisoners and established a training and employment project for them. Joe found out there were five places left and took advantage of the opportunity, securing one for himself.

The project dealt with community development and Joe's area of focus quickly became young people. "I suppose it came out of my mother visiting me while I was still in prison and telling me there were some problems with young people in the community and that there was nothing for them to do. Perhaps because I went to jail at 17, I felt more connected to them and my background gave me some credentials in their eyes."

Like many places in the North, Doherty's area suffers a high rate of alcohol and drug abuse and aside from educating young people about the dangers and consequences of those, Joe also spends much of his time trying to explain the cost of death riding.

"It is a labour of love," he says. "You have good moments, when a young person you thought was out of your reach suddenly turns around. Then you have others when you wonder 'why am I doing this?' We need more youth centres and resources. You want to take the kids camping but you don't always have the money for equipment and transport. You want to encourage creativity and imagination but don't have funds for arts and crafts supplies, trips to museums, visits to new places."

Doherty told me of a recent trip he took to the country with some youths from the area.

"We were out in these huge open fields, having a great time. It was so relaxing and liberating. Then we got in the bus and began the drive home. You could feel the change, it was almost suffocating - the small dark wet streets, the lack of space, no playgrounds, no green open areas."

Doherty is currently working with young people in two age ranges: 10 to 15 year-olds and 16 to 24. In the last six months, he has been involved with two projects involving youths. The first focuses on the latter group and is an anti-sectarian campaign, the United Irish Project.

"We wanted to challenge some of the sectarian thoughts and preconceptions that might be present within our young people. We took the group to Wexford for two days and talked about the 1798 Rising, the French and American revolutions, trade unionism, Wolfe Tone and Henry Joy McCracken. We pointed out that many of the leading republicans of the day were Protestants, and held discussion groups to talk about the attitudes between nationalist and unionist areas now, how it got the way it is, and what is really behind it all.

"We hope to make a trip to north Antrim soon, to discuss the Ulster rising and we also hope that, at some point, this will be a cross-community project. We would like to see unionist youths having more of an awareness of their own tradition within republicanism."


The second project Doherty has been involved in lately is a training course for mediation and facilitarion and conflict management. That's a mouthful, but it mainly involves helping young people to see the bigger picture through education and life experience.

"We wanted our youth to look at the community from a new perspective, so we thought we'd look at other communities and Kosovo came to mind. I knew someone who had worked there and had been reading up on it myself. I started to see some parellels in its geopolitical nature, its ethnicity and religious background. So we sat down with a few young people from our area and began to learn about diversity and conflict."

Seeing an opportunity to expand the project, Doherty contacted a youth worker within a unionist community and asked if it would be something they might wish to be involved in. He was pleased to get a positive response.

"In the end, we had three young people from a nationalist background and three from a unionist perspective.

"We all met and conducted an induction program. We wanted to promote team building, so we set out an agreement of how we would respond and interact with one another through the course of the project. All agreed that we would be open about who we all are, that we would behave with mutual respect within our own diversity."

Each young person then went on to do an individual project focusing on a particular aspect of the conflict in Kosovo, which was in turn presented to the rest of the group. The entire project culminated when six young people, Joe and another youth worker, actually went to Kosova for six days hosted by the Irish overseas charity, CONCERN.

"We did field work - helped on farms, repaired buildings. We toured the burnt out towns and mass graves. It gave our young people the chance to learn about their own diversity by examining the nature of diversity and conflict within another culture. We hoped it would encourage them to reflect on the nature of intolerance and challenge our own situation.

"At one point we were on a two-hour bus trip and they were all getting restless; a two-hour drive was too long. I reminded them that fleeing families had had to walk the same route we were now taking, in fear for their lives, and that they were able to take only what possesions they could carry."

The group did workshops with local Serbian and Albanian youth. They were encouraged not to judge what they were hearing, but to listen to all the stories they were being told. At the end of the trip they invited other young people from both groups to come and visit the Six Counties. The offer was accepted, and this past month, a mixed group of 17 young people came from Kosova for six days, to go through the same process.

During the course of the project, Doherty and the other youth worker were encouraged by the way our young people responded. "They developed real skills," he says. "They worked as a team and mixed as a group. They had a definite sense that they were representing their country, whatever they might view that country to be, and we are hopeful the experience will not only provide them with a better understanding of what is happening around them, but that it will also help them provide more leadership on the ground and challenge the perceptions of others."

Doherty says they now hope to put together a website, CD ROM, booklet or film about the experience, to act as a learning tool for schools and youth centres. It is hoped it will raise awareness and promote both the positive nature of diversity and the negative nature and consequences of intolerance.

New Lodge Six

As if he hasn't got enough on his plate, Joe Doherty is also involved in many other local community projects. Alongside his old friend Paul O'Neill, he is a member of the New Lodge Six Committee, which recently organised an international community inquiry into the shooting dead of six unarmed New Lodge men at the hands of the British Army in 1973. That committee is to truly be commended for the exhaustive and excellent work they did in preparing and organising the event.

Joe is also active in helping to organise local festivals, involved in work with ex-prisoners groups such as Tar Isteach, which provides advice, counselling, emotional support, training and education for ex-prisoners in north Belfast, and Coiste na n-Iarchimí. He does work with CCRJ and reconciliation groups, which bring together former combatants in an effort to promote understanding and heal the wounds and suffering of the past.

As he nears 50, Doherty is as committed as ever to his principals and community.

"I've heard people say lately that it seems fashionable for republicans to be involved in community work these days, but we always were."

"When I was a young man I was out on the street defending my area, but my friends and I also spent our time shovelling walks for neighbours, running messages for people or cleaning yards. So republicans have always been heavily involved in their communities. It was part of why I got involved in the struggle in the first place, a natural extension.

"I have been fighting for this community all my life. It is always at the very heart of me."

An Phoblacht
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