Priest known as ‘pillar of the peace process’
Fr Alec Reid - Born: August 5th, 1931; Died: November 22nd, 2013
To many Fr Alec Reid, who has died at the age of 82, is the priest who knelt in prayer over the body of a British soldier beaten to death by a mob on a dreadful Saturday afternoon in Belfast in March 1988.
A famous photograph shows the naked soldier lying on the ground as if crucified while the kneeling priest prays over him with bowed head. Alec Reid later wrote to the parents of slain corporals David Howes and Derek Wood, praising them for not using their weapons and thus avoiding further bloodshed.
To others Reid is the quiet “pillar of the peace process”, in John Hume’s phrase, the man who played a pivotal role in bringing about the Belfast Agreement a decade later.
But if the young Alexander Reid had had his way, he would have been a missionary in Nigeria, or a schoolteacher in Ireland. On leaving school in 1949, he applied to join the Holy Ghost order. When he presented himself for interview at Kimmage Manor, Dublin, he waited 90 minutes. Nobody spoke to him, so he went home, and subsequently joined the Redemptorist Order, famous then for conducting “hellfire and brimstone” annual retreats in parishes all around Ireland.
Reid was born in Dublin, but his mother returned with her children to her native Tipperary when he was five, after the death of his father. He attended a Christian Brothers school in Nenagh and was ordained in 1957.
He had been a member of the Tipperary minor hurling panel which won the All Ireland title in 1949 and he was awarded the Tipperary Person of the Year in 2006. His continuing affection for his native county was evident. He is reported on one occasion as having said: “God is everywhere, but he prefers to spend most of his time in Tipperary.”
In 1961 he was sent to the Clonard monastery, just off the Falls Road in Belfast and he was there when the city erupted in 1969.
He decided to do something about the mayhem which was unfolding on the streets around the Falls Road. “I saw a British army officer losing a leg when an IRA bomb was detonated nearby . . . I saw a young man who a year earlier had been an altar boy in the monastery leading a riot . . . if a sensible young man like him is leading a riot, then there must be good reason,” he told journalist Patsy McGarry of The Irish Times in 2008.
With another priest, Des Wilson, Alec Reid began engaging with the combatants. They found that nobody trusted any one, and nationalists were further divided by bitter hatred between Official and Provisional IRA, and other factions.
“We had to gain access to the leaders of the riots if we were to stop them.”
Over time the republican leadership on the street came to accept Reid’s bona fides in resolving local tensions. But the need to do more was brought home to him at the funeral of a young man killed by loyalists. The widow was weeping inconsolably over the open coffin as the other mourners prayed. “I realised that this should not be happening in a civilised society.” He would repeat this phrase throughout his life.
Alec Reid visited Long Kesh prison and said Mass there. He got to know Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and won his trust. He tried to stop the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes but both sides were too entrenched. “The message was simple, we’d tried telling people that what they were doing was immoral and that had failed. Now we simply said that there’s a better way of achieving your objectives.”
Reid played a key role in the success of talks between SDLP leader John Hume and Adams in 1988. He was part of the Redemptorist peace and reconciliation initiative which won the support of Mary McAleese, then soon to become president of Ireland, and Irish News publisher Jim Fitzpatrick.
The priest had been shocked by the vituperative personal criticism of Hume and wanted to provide some cover for a very brave attempt at making peace. He understood before most did that the hunger strikes were a watershed. He also sensed that Adams had realised that the war was over, and it was time to move on.
Later, Reid and a Methodist minister, Harold Good, oversaw IRA decommissioning of arms in 2005.
Alec Reid was not without faults – his use of the word Nazi to describe unionist treatment of nationalists was a mistake for which he apologised.
He left the world a better place by dint of his dogged low- key peacemaking.
He is survived by his sisters Margaret O’Meara and Maura Lister.