NEW YORK -- Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Mario Biaggi, Rep.-elect Eliot Engel took up the cause of Northern Ireland Friday and urged President Reagan to grant political asylum to an Irish Republican Army soldier jailed since 1983 in Manhattan.
'The president can just end this with one fell swoop of the pen,' Engel said of the case of Joseph Patrick Doherty, 33, who has been held without charges in the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center for more than five years.
The Justice Department last month reopened its review of the jailing of Doherty, who faces life in prison for the 1980 killing of a British soldier if deported to Northern Ireland.
'If he goes back to Northern Ireland, he's a dead duck,' said Engel, who met Doherty this summer at the jail in Lower Manhattan as the former assemblyman campaigned to succeed convicted Rep. Mario Biaggi, who was a longtime champion of Irish causes.
Like Biaggi, Engel, who is not Irish, said he would join the so-called Irish Caucus in Congress.
Federal courts have ruled several times that Doherty's crime was political, not criminal, and that he could not be deported. But under Attorney General Edwin Meese, the Reagan administration continued to try to deport him.
Following Meese's resignation, Atorney General Richard Thornburgh in November agreed to take another look at the case.
Engel called on Reagan, 'as one of his last acts,' to grant Doherty asylum.
'For some reason due process doesn't seem to apply to Joe Doherty,' he said, and 'it's not something that we ought to tolerate.'
Nassau County Comptroller Peter King, a Republican who is an IRA supporter, appplauded Engel's action and strongly criticized the Reagan administration's record on Northern Ireland.
'Meese was an absolute disgrace when it came to the issue of Joe Doherty or the issue of Northern Ireland -- he might as well have been on the payroll of the British foreign office,' King said, while noting that he believed Thornburgh 'seems more open.'
'If America sincerely believes in freedom and human rights, we have to grant asylum to Joe Doherty,' said King, who is chairman of the Committee for Legal Justice in Northern Ireland.
'If America is going to be a credible leader of the free world, we cannot turn our backs on him,' he said.
The case has become a cause-celebre among Irish-Americans and has seen a host of congressmen, as well as Cardinal John O'Connor, visit Doherty in his jail cell.
Doherty was convicted in England in 1981 of murder and attempted murder in an IRA ambush on a military convoy that left a British soldier dead.
He later escaped from prison and, according to his own account, was ordered by the IRA leadership to resign from the group, flee to the Republic of Ireland in the south and then to the United States.
Doherty considers himself a soldier, not a terrorist, who killed another soldier during a military confrontation.
In an interview with United Press International last June, Doherty defended his past and said he would 'do it all over again' if he could rejoin the IRA in Northern Ireland.