Week in Death: The Peacemaker Priest
Father Alec Reid, the priest who worked to broker peace in Northern Ireland but failed to save two soldiers from a mob, dead at 82.
Father Alec Reid, who has died aged 82, was a Redemptorist priest who played a pivotal role in the early stages of the peace process in Northern Ireland when he acted as an intermediary between the IRA and the Irish government.
For almost 40 years Father Alec Reid lived and worshipped at the Clonard Monastery off the Falls Road in West Belfast. As feuds between Unionists and Nationalists raged on his doorstep, he worked behind the scenes to broker peace and offer comfort to those affected by the violence. He first came to prominence in Northern Ireland in 1982, when he visited Gerry Adams, then joint vice-president of Sinn Fein, to try to persuade the IRA to release a kidnapped member of the Ulster Defense Regiment. The mission failed and the IRA murdered the man.
In 1988, during some of the worst of the Troubles, when there seemed to be no hope of a political or military solution, a shocking photograph of Father Alec, his hands clasped in prayer, his face smeared with blood, kneeling over the body of a British soldier—one of two who had been lynched by a frenzied Republican mob, seemed to indicate that Northern Ireland was about to descend into new depths of inhumanity.
The picture was beamed around the world, but no one knew until years later that beneath his coat the priest was carrying a secret Sinn Fein document for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader John Hume on how to resolve the crisis. After the photograph was taken Reid returned to his monastery and changed the envelope because the blood of one of the British soldiers was on it.
Despite the failure of his earlier attempt to persuade Gerry Adams of the need to pursue peace, Reid remained in close contact after Adams became Sinn Fein president, and in 1987 was asked to act as go-between when the IRA first made guarded suggestions of a ceasefire to the then Irish Taoiseach Charles Haughey.
In the late 1980s, Reid facilitated a series of meetings between Adams and John Hume, in an effort to establish a “Pan-Nationalist front” to enable a move towards renouncing violence in favor of negotiation. Reid then acted as a vital communications link between the Sinn Fein leader and Irish Governments as the peace process developed in secret, a vital first step towards the setting up of negotiations involving all sides in Northern Ireland and which eventually lead to the first IRA ceasefire and the signing of the peace agreement in April 1998.
It was said to be Reid who, through a mixture of persistence and self-effacement, convinced both Hume and Albert Reynolds, Ireland’s Taoiseach in the early 1990s, that Adams genuinely wanted peace, realizing that the IRA could not defeat the British.
When the IRA eventually decommissioned its weapons in 2005, Reid and the Reverend Harold Good, a Methodist minister were the two churchmen who acted as independent witnesses to the arms being put beyond use.
Alec Reid was born at Nenagh, Co Tipperary, on August 5 1931. He was professed as a Redemptorist in 1950, and ordained a priest seven years later. After serving in parish missions in Limerick, Dundalk and Galway, he went on to spend four decades based at Clonard Monastery in north Belfast.
In a recent interview on the BBC Reid spoke for the first time about the terrible events of March 19 1988 when he attempted to intervene to save the lives of Derek Wood and David Howes, two Signals Corps corporals who had blundered into a Republican funeral cortege.
Reid recalled seeing the soldiers being taken from their car, partially stripped and dragged to a sports ground. “They put the two of them face down on the ground and I got down between the two of them on my face, and I had my arm around this one and I was holding this one by the shoulder. When I was lying between the two soldiers I remember saying to myself, ‘This shouldn’t be happening in a civilized society.’”
“Somebody came in and picked me up and said, ‘Get up, or I’ll ——ing well shoot you as well,’ and he said, ‘Take him away.’ Two of them came on either shoulder and maneuvered me out.” He went on: “I can remember the atmosphere. You could feel it. I knew they were going to be shot. I can remember thinking, ‘They are going to shoot these men.’”
The IRA took the soldiers away and he heard two shots. He found Howes, 23, already dead, but 24-year-old Derek Wood was still moving and attempting to talk. Reid tried to give him the kiss of life, during which his face became smeared in blood. But it was too late so he gave him the last rites. “One of my abiding memories of that day,” Reid recalled, “is of a local woman putting a coat over one of the victims and saying, ‘he was somebody’s son’.”
“I felt I had done my best to save them, but I had failed to save them,” Reid recalled. “I felt it was a tragedy that I had tried to stop and didn’t.” A nationalist MP was later to tell the House of Commons: “What happened to the two soldiers was… the nearest thing to the crucifixion of Christ that one could see.”
In more recent years Father Alec Reid became involved in mediation between violent and mainstream nationalists in the Basque country of northern Spain and was credited with brokering the terrorist group ETA’s 2006 “permanent ceasefire” which sadly lasted only nine months.
In 2005, Reid prompted outrage in some quarters when he likened the unionist treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland in the past to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. He later apologized, explaining that he had been provoked to anger by attacks on his Church and his integrity by Unionist hecklers.
Reid was awarded the Sabino Arana World Mirror prize for his efforts at promoting peace in the Basque country and in 2008 was made an honorary graduate by the University of Ulster and Queen’s University Belfast. The same year he shared the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award with Reverend Harold Good.
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This article was first published by The Telegraph.