A letter written by Joe Biden — and published here for the first time — in the midst of British efforts to extradite a leading IRA man from the US has thrown fresh light on the Presidential candidate's favourable disposition to Irish nationalism.
In the letter, written on official Senate notepaper, Senator Biden rejects attempts to remove the political exemption clause from the US extradition treaty with Britain so that IRA volunteer Joe Doherty could be sent back to the H-Blocks.
Joe Doherty had been captured in North Belfast in 1980 after the IRA's feared M60 unit had engaged in a shootout which claimed the life of an SAS soldier. The following year, he was among a group of IRA volunteers who blasted their way out of the Crumlin Road jail, eventually making his way to the US.
After his detention in New York in 1983, Irish Americans rallied to the North Belfast man's cause, even naming the parking space outside the Manhattan Detention Center 'Joe Doherty Corner' in his honour.
British efforts to have Joe Doherty extradited dominated relations between President Reagan and British PM Margaret Thatcher but, led by Joe Biden, a coalition of Senators refused to permit the amendment of the Extradition Treaty to allow the dumping of the centuries-old exclusion for political offences.
In his letter to Jesuit priest Fr James Joyce (who would go on to serve in North Belfast for a period in the 1990s), then Senator Joe Biden accuses the Reagan administration of "seeking hasty Senate action on this treaty". He adds: "The treaty is being used to re-write our entire approach to the question of extradition and the definition of political offence. In my mind, it is far preferable to allow occasional judicial mistakes than to codify an approach that would have, for example, required the US to send Indian dissidents in the 1940s to England to stand trial."
Speaking to Belfastmedia.com this week, Joe Doherty said he recalled Senator Biden as the lead opponent of moves to amend the extradition treaty to enable him to be handed over to the British. At the time the Irish Government and their key supporters in the Senate were backing the amendment plan. "The Senate had to ratify the change to the Treaty and Joe Biden was firmly against giving in," he said. "There were 11 different court hearings right up to the Supreme Court to try to extradite me but on every occasion, the judges ruled that my case was a classic example of the political offence exclusion. We brought Sean McBride, Fr Des, Bernadette Devlin and other witnesses over from the North to tell the courts the truth about what was happening back home and on each occasion, the courts came down on our side."
Frustrated, US authorities had to turn to immigration legislation in order to deport the IRA man, handing him over to the RUC in London in 1992. He was released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
While barred from re-entry to the US, Joe Doherty was pleased to hear that Joe Biden was asking after him when he served as Vice-President to Barack Obama. "Monica McWilliams told me that she met Joe Biden in the White House and he asked her, 'do you know a Joe Doherty over there?'. She was able to say that she did and she had a magazine with her which had a picture of me engaged in cross-community peacebuilding in North Belfast. The Vice-President said he was glad to hear I was doing well."
We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit.— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 16, 2020
Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period. https://t.co/Ecu9jPrcHL
While continuing to be immersed in community projects in North Belfast, Joe Doherty admits to following the US election with a keener eye than most. "I wasn't surprised that Joe Biden came out immediately to roast the British over their attempts to rewrite the EU Withdrawal Agreement," he said.
"He is very proud Irish American who knows the politics here only too well and will be a great friend to Ireland if elected as President on 3 November."