Obituary: Fr Alec Reid, key player in Northern Ireland peace process

Father Alec Reid. Picture: Getty
Father Alec Reid. Picture: Getty
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Born: 5 August, 1931, in Dublin. Died: 22 November 2013, in Dublin, aged 82.

FATHER Alec Reid, a Catholic priest of the Redemptorist order, sought to bring peace to Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles and played a key mediating role in achieving it. He famously appeared on TV screens around the world in 1988 when he knelt on waste ground near Casement Park in Belfast on 19 March to administer the last rites to one of two British soldiers beaten and shot by a pro-republican mob after stumbling into an IRA funeral cortege. The soldier’s almost-crucified position added power to the image.

Fr Reid had already tried the kiss of life on both soldiers and was covered in their blood. He later wrote to their parents, praising their sons for their courage and restraint in not trying to shoot their way out. “Our parish is seen as dripping in the blood of the murders,” he said.

He had initially lain between the two soldiers, trying to find if they were still alive, while an IRA man told him to “get up or I’ll f******well shoot you as well.”

“When I was lying between the two soldiers, I remember saying to myself ‘this shouldn’t happen in a civilised society’. That motivated me to keep trying to get away from the kind of society where this kind of thing could happen.”

Fr Reid always believed that dialogue was the only way to end the violence and he gained the trust of the warring parties – not least within the IRA itself – helping bring it and others to the negotiating table.

As representatives of Northern Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant communities, he and a Methodist minister, Rev Harold Good, were called in as witnesses to the decommissioning – effectively the destruction – of IRA weapons in 2005, a belated consequence of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, which Fr Reid had helped to bring about. Loyalist paramilitary groups decommissioned their weapons later.

Fr Reid later recalled an IRA man handing over the last weapon to him, an assault rifle: “He got quite emotional. He was aware this was the last gun.” As things turned out, that may not have been quite true, as illegal weapons still threaten to blight Northern Ireland, but it was nevertheless a massive moment in the peace process.

One of Fr Reid’s most important roles was acting as an intermediary between the IRA and the Dublin government, both of whom trusted his discretion. Contrary to some published reports in English newspapers after his death, however, he was never a conduit between the IRA and Whitehall. That role fell to MI6 agent Michael Oatley, codenamed “the Mountain Climber”, and his main contact, Derry businessman Brendan Duddy, codenamed “Soon”, a republican but believer in dialogue rather than violence.

Oatley and Duddy’s clandestine meetings in Northern Ireland with IRA leaders, including Martin McGuinness – often with a notetaker called Gerry Adams present, usually at night and with Oatley and Duddy blindfolded en route – put their lives in danger at every turn, but were crucial on the long road to peace.

Oatley was well aware that he was largely “flying solo” and that if his IRA interlocutors killed him, then the British government would publicly deny all knowledge of him. To this day, neither Oatley nor Duddy has been properly recognised for their roles and Oatley has always said “Brendan Duddy was the real hero”.

Alec Patrick Reid was born in Dublin, the great-grandson of a Methodist minister but Alec’s grandfather had converted to Catholicism. So, after Alec and his mother moved to Tipperary when he was six, his focus was soon on hurling, on the Catholic Church and on seeing British troops out of the six northern provinces of his island.

As a young man, he joined the congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, colloquially known as the Redemptorists, founded in Italy to help the poor and considering themselves missionaries in their own countries.

His father having died when he was six, young Alec moved with his mother to Nenagh in Tipperary – an Irish republican heartland – where he went to school with the Christian Brothers, joined the Redemptorists and was ordained as a priest in Athenry, Co Galway, in 1957. He served in various monasteries before ending up in the Clonard monastery just off the Falls Road in Belfast – very much the front line between Protestant and Catholic activists – where he spent most of his life.

As a young Scottish journalist at the time, I was terrified to walk those streets since your religion could mean the difference between life and death. Fr Reid knew that more than most. A devout Catholic and a republican, he nevertheless put his calling first – hence his instinctive attempt to save the lives, and at least bless those two young British soldiers in 1988. His humanity on that day will far outlive the frenzy of the mob he defied, despite a gun being held to his head. Ironically, as he revealed many years later, when that famous picture was taken of him on his knees with his rosary, praying for a dead soldier, he was carrying in his coat a secret conciliatory message from the IRA to Northern Irish politicians. He said he returned to the monastery and put the message into a new envelope because the blood of those British soldiers was on the original one.

Like every man of God, Alec Reid had his human frailties. In 2005, he upset many by likening the unionist treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews in the 1930s and 40s. He apologised, blaming aggressive unionist hecklers who had challenged his integrity and that of his Church.

After his official retirement, he was invited to Spain by Basque nationalists whose aim is independence. In many ways, it is the opposite argument to the question of a united Ireland but the similarities are great, not least in the violence, and countless deaths, that it has created. Basque nationalists of the ETA group routinely parade Irish republican flags at their clandestine meetings – I was often there – and looked to the IRA for inspiration.

Fr Reid helped to arrange an ETA ceasefire in 2006, which gave a certain peace of mind to peace-loving Spaniards, whether Basque and otherwise, at least for a while. The ceasefire barely last a year, but Fr Reid remained in contact with the mainstream Basque nationalists, and their more violent counterparts, until days before he died. Perhaps his legacy will one day show in Spain as well as in his home country.

Gerry Adams, now president of Sinn Fein, lamented Fr Reid’s death. He said he had visited 
Fr Reid, his confessor, last Thursday night and had planned to visit him again on Friday before learning he had passed away. “He lived the gospel message and developed a view which was contrary to the official view, that there had to be dialogue.

“And he was tenacious. There would not be a peace process at this time without his diligent doggedness and his refusal to give up.”

According to Michael D Higgins, the president of Ireland: “Fr Reid’s ministering of the last rites to the two British corporals brutally killed in 1988 offered us an image of decency struggling to assert itself amidst brutality.”

Details of Father Reid’s family survivors were not known.