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Killer in Clowntown: Joe Doherty, the IRA and the Special Relationship.

Martin Dillon brings a Belfast insider's viewpoint to this story of Joe Doherty's career: he grew up near him, and knows his old stamping grounds. Indeed, this is his third in a series of investigative studies of the Ulster problem since the current 'troubles' began in 1968, the first two being The Shankill Butchers in 1989 and The Dirty War which published the IRA's Green Book, its code of discipline, in 1990. Although (or because he was?) a BBC producer of Irish programmes, he was sought as an expert witness on Irish terrorism, when Doherty tried to obtain a right to asylum in the US. The US Supreme Court denied the appeal; Doherty also lost his request for bail and was extradited; his nine-year saga in jail came to an end, and with it his long innings as an IRA 'hero' in Irish-American opinion.

This book can be read at the level of an extraordinary adventure story, an Odd Man Out but two generations and much terrorism later. Dillon has no illusions: he sees Doherty as a man with little education, drawn into conflict by 'the overpowering emotionalism of the terrible events surrounding him, and his association with the cult of the gunman'. Doherty and his group were arrested for the murder of an SAS captain, H. R. Westmacott, in 1980; during their trial, they made a dramatic escape from Crumlin Road high-security prison in Belfast. At each stage in his escape he was sheltered and housed by civilian sympathisers in Belfast or in the Republic; in his absence, he was given a thirty-year prison sentence. Spirited to New York by the IRA with a new name and a forged passport, he then worked as a barman (despite the temptation of becoming a NY policeman!), but was arrested by the FBI and spent nine years in the New York Correctional Center. Even here, near the spot where New York honoured him by giving his name to a street corner, (as Glasgow similarly honours Winnie Mandela) he had sympathisers, including over 130 Congressmen and a son of President Bush. Whether on active service as a gunman, or playing the part of 'prisoner of conscience' in the NY courts, Doherty fought against the British 'tyranny', and became an Irish-American hero. It was only Mrs. Thatcher's determination that he was a ruthless terrorist that kept him in jail, and finally (in January 1992) ensured his extradition.

This is thus more than the biography of a desperate and clever man. It is an index to two ugly societies. One is the borderland and 'bandit country' of the Irish Republic, with many families on both sides of the line aiding and abetting killers, whose world and whose experience are only of war, and who do not recognise English (or British?) justice as binding on them--witness the arguments brought forward in all Doherty's trials. The other society is the Irish-American world of New York and Boston, with a network of people ready to assist IRA operations; they put nothing at risk, but use legends to make deadly mischief, and finance murder largely for the kicks it brings. Like other IRA activists Doherty 'rested' in the US; he was and is aware of his public role, and aware indeed that, thanks now to Hollywood and to the omni-presence of television, the IRA in the US is rivalling the Mafia as a source of near-fictional outlaw-heroes. It won't be long before Joe Doherty is seen as the Lucky Luciano or Al Capone of his times. And if James Mason could make a legend of 'Odd Man Out', soon a new Cagney (or Robert de Niro) will portray him on the screen. Didn't Capone himself vet the script of Scarface? If so, the IRA in feeding the folklore will win the battle of minds in the US. This is an accurately-assembled, chilling and fascinating book.
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Author:Wright, Esmond
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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