«A good man might be hard to find», but evidently not impossible. At the news of Fr Alec Reid's death, on Friday 22nd November, choirs of angels must have sung «Happy the peacemakers they shall be called sons of God». Fr Alec Reid was a peacemaker worthy of the Nobel peace prize he never received. It was said that even if he had been awarded it, he would have turned it down, because «peace was the only prize he was after». He will always be remembered as the good priest whose essential contribution was instrumental in bringing what seemed the impossible end to the cycle of violence in Northern Ireland.
Father Alec Reid was born in Co Tipperary in 1931. He later joined the Redemptorist Order and spent forty years of his life based at Clonard Monastery in west Belfast. It was during this period he developed a close relationship with Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and became a strategic figure in the Northern Ireland peace process. He facilitated talks and acted as a clandestine go-between the divided nationalist party leaders, Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams and SDLP leader John Hume. During the Troubles he secretly carried messages to and from republicans and the British and Irish governments during the earliest stages of the peace process in the 1980s.
In March 1988 he was caught on camera giving the last rites to two British soldiers murdered after accidentally driving into an IRA funeral cortege. That image of the bloodstained priest crouched praying over one of the soldiers is one of the grimmest images of the Northern Ireland Troubles and became an icon of Father Reid's Catholic faith and unshakeable belief in the peace process.
Michael D Higgins, the president of Ireland, said: His 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."
For an outsider it is virtually impossible to imagine the violence, terror, bitterness and pain that stained those years in Northern Ireland. As one young woman put it at that time, «when your husband leaves in the morning to go to work, you don't know if you will see him again in the evening». Many on both sides of the political spectrum never made it back home.
Fr Gerry Reynolds, his close friend and colleague at the Redemptorist Monastery at Clonard, west Belfast, said Fr Reid's big motivation in life «was to stop the next person getting killed and the only way to stop the next person getting killed was to in some way find a way of dialogue between the opposing parties». He said Fr Reid began to believe that the great weakness in «the Irish struggle for self determination» was the division among nationalists, which he worked to end. «It was around that theory that he built his own commitment to peace but his commitment was absolutely total, wholehearted, meticulous in his attention to detail and careful to ensure that the project succeeded», added Fr Reynolds.
Several years later, with paramilitary ceasefires agreed and the 1998 Good Friday peace accord signed, Fr Reid was the obvious choice to act as an independent witness to the decommissioning of the IRA’s arsenal of weapons in 2005.
After the news of Fr Alec's death broke, the Irish President Michael D Higgins led tributes to the late cleric, who in his later years had made Dublin his home: «Fr Reid will perhaps best be remembered for the courageous part he played in identifying and nurturing the early seeds of an inclusive peace process», he said. «Fr Reid’s role as a channel for peace laid the ground for the achievement of the IRA ceasefire and created the political space for the multi-party talks that ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement. Fr Reid would have been gratified by the positive transformation that is under way throughout Northern Ireland, and especially in the Belfast that he loved so well».
Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin president: «What Alec Reid did was he lived the gospel message. He developed a view which was contrary to the official view, that there had to be dialogue, and he was tenacious - I remember quite a few times saying he was like a terrier».
John Hume, former SDLP leader: «Fr Reid was a pillar of the peace process. Without his courage, determination and utter selflessness, the road to peace in our region would have been much longer and much more difficult to traverse».
A statement from the United States' embassy in Belfast said the country extended its sympathy to the family and friends of Fr Reid and made reference to how «(his) deep faith and moral courage helped lay the foundation for dialogue and progress in Northern Ireland, and his passing reminds us of the contributions made by so many along the path to peace». «The United States applauds the tremendous progress made by the people and institutions of Northern Ireland, and we will be there as a friend and partner as remaining challenges toward a shared future are resolved in the same spirit of dialogue and mutual respect».
As UK Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, said: «We all owe a debt of gratitude to him for the role he played in the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland».
In recent years, Fr Reid was involved in talks with Basque nationalists seeking independence from Spain. He demonstrated the same steadfastness and conviction that had epitomised him during the peace process in Northern Ireland.
He died peacefully at the age of 82 in St. Vincent's Hospital, Dublin at 06:40 GMT on 22nd November.
His funeral will take place at 12:00 GMT on Wednesday after a requiem Mass in Clonard church in west Belfast.
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