Bitter Homecoming

updated 03/09/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

TO THE BRITISH, JOE DOHERTY IS A common criminal, a terrorist who murdered a British Army captain in a 1980 firefight in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and escaped to America during his trial. But the former Irish Republican Army fighter makes no apologies for the killing. "I was always taught when I was a kid that there was justification in fighting for your country," says Doherty (pronounced DOCK-erty). "If you fought and died for your country, then you'd go to heaven."

Many Irish-Americans seem to agree that whatever Doherty did in Northern Ireland, he was entitled to sanctuary in the U.S. For nearly a decade after his arrest by FBI agents in Manhattan, they pressured Congress and the President to keep him in the U.S., safe from a 30-year prison sentence in Northern Ireland. Though a series of federal court rulings affirmed Doherty's claim that he should be judged as a freedom fighter rather than as a criminal, in January the Supreme Court upheld a decision by the Justice Department not to grant him a full hearing on his request for political asylum. On Feb. 19 he was removed from his cell at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., and flown home to Belfast.

Foreseeing his extradition, Doherty had told PEOPLE last month, "I feel almost like an American. I'm gonna miss Monday night football and hamburgers and baseball."

He remembered with bitterness the travails of growing up in a working-class Catholic neighborhood in Belfast. Doherty was 16 when, he says, British soldiers on a random search stormed into his family's house at 4 A.M. They ordered his father, Joe, a longshoreman, and mother, Maureen, a domestic worker, to get out of bed. "My mother was frightened, with all these soldiers standing there with blackened faces, and asked them to stand out of the room so she could put her nightgown on," Doherty recalled. "Then an officer stuck a Browning pistol in her face and said, 'You Irish bitch. Get the f—- out of bed!" Soon afterward, Doherty signed up with the IRA.

The years in America seem to have softened Doherty. He abandoned his guerrilla ties and expressed disgust at recent IRA attacks in which civilians were harmed. And though he still blames the British for Northern Ireland's troubles, Doherty now discourages Irish youngsters from joining the IRA. "I want these kids to grow up to be doctors and schoolteachers and housewives and plumbers," he said. "I don't want it to ever be their decision to kill someone, or be killed, or end up in the damn prison."

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