Fr Alec Reid was a man of courage who dedicated his life to peace, writes Nuala O’Loan
Fr Alec Reid’s dying was much like his living. It was a private affair. He was an iconic and yet somewhat enigmatic figure, involved at many elemental moments of the peace process, but also working quietly behind the scenes to change minds and hearts. He came to Belfast in the early 1960s and ministered there for 44 years. Those who watched the recent television programme on ‘The Disappeared’ presented by Darragh MacIntyre on BBC and RTÉ had an opportunity to see, possibly for the first time, the reality of life in Belfast in the early 1970s. It was a terrible place – mothers with babies in prams scuttling from doorway to doorway, seeking to stay alive whilst trying to do the basicshopping and taking children to school which was essential if life were to have any degree of normality. The endless shooting and bombing was part of everyday life.
There were 30,000 soldiers on the ground in Northern Ireland by July 1972. That year, 470 people died and nearly 5,000 people were reported to be injured. There were undoubtedly many more injuries which were never reported. There were some 10,000 shooting incidents during that year alone. Belfast resembled West Beirut at its worst. It was a terrible place, and it was in that terrible place that Fr Alec Reid and so many others sought to minister. Two priests were killed by the army during those early years of the Troubles as they went about their ministry. Fr Hugh Mullen was a curate from Corpus Christi, West Belfast and was killed on August 9, 1971 as he tried to help his neighbour Bobby Clarke who was shot in the back as he tried to get children to safety from an attack from Springmartin, an adjoining Protestant estate. Fr Noel Fitzpatrick, a curate in Ballymurphy, West Belfast was shot dead by British soldiers in Ballymurphy, on July 9, 1972. Fr Fitzpatrick was praying over a wounded man when he was shot.
For many the Redemptorist Monastery at Clonard was a place of peace. It was a place in which courageous men like Fr Reid and Fr Gerry Reynolds tried to model the living of the Gospels reaching out across the sectarian divide to their brothers and sisters in Christianity at a time when being a Catholic or a Protestant in the wrong place could well result in death or serious injury.
The history of what happened in Ireland, north and south during those decades from 1969 is gradually being told: the endless IRA murders of their own people; the abduction and murder of those who became known as the Disappeared; the many bodies left tortured and mutilated on lonely country roads to deter anyone who might think of reporting on the savagery that was the IRA’s primary tactic; the Military Reaction Force (MRF) and the successor organisations, shadowy arms of the British state, allegedly seeking to kill IRA men but killing also innocent bystanders; the Loyalist murder groups such as the Shankill Butchers, a UVF group who, between 1975 and 1982 killed 23 people, torturing them and cutting their throats; the Glenanne gang, a combination of UDR, UVF and RUC men, responsible, it is suggested, for over 120 killings in the Mid-Ulster and South Armagh area; the UVF in North Belfast who killed, injured and committed hundreds of other serious crimes in the 1990s to 2007, as shown in my own investigation as Police Ombudsman, an investigation triggered when a man called Raymond McCord walked in through my office door and told me that his son and many others had been killed by a group of UVF men who were police informants and who were allowed to commit these terrible crimes by the police, something I found difficult to comprehend. On investigation I found that he was right. We uncovered terrible evidence of collusion between some police officers and these terrorists.
It was in this context that Fr Reid lived and worked – during decades of terror, tragedy and trauma. He worked quietly with those who would work with him and is credited for gradually helping the IRA to come to terms with the fact that they needed to move beyond violence.
There can be no doubt that it was the courage and vision of another great Irishman which really enabled the end of the Troubles. That man was John Hume who also worked tirelessly for over 40 years to bring peace to Northern Ireland, a contribution which rightly earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. He believes that violence solves nothing and that we would only have peace when all those involved came around the table and finally negotiated that peace. In reality it was not possible at any stage to get everyone around the same table, but peace was made and Northern Ireland is a very different place now.
Alec Reid’s contributions to our fragile peace were many. His work and his courage were to be seen through many incidents, perhaps the most terrible was when he became aware of the abduction of the two corporals in Belfast and tried to prevent their murder. They had driven close to a funeral in March 1988 of mourners who had been shot dead by Loyalist Michael Stone when attending the funerals of three IRA personnel who had previously been shot dead in Gibraltar. They were abducted and murdered and Fr Reid was famously pictured kneeling and praying beside one of them.
Over the years his contribution is said to have included negotiating a truce between rival IRA groups in 1975, and being a witness to IRA decommissioning of weapons and munitions as recently as 2005.
Fr Reid did not court the media, and there were few public utterances. His work, whether in Ireland, or after 2005 in the Basque Country, where I have also been working intermittently on the same peace process since 2007, was done quietly. He did make some strange comment in his later years.
Chris Ryder the Belfast journalist, writing an obituary in The Guardian newspaper, referred to his comparison of Unionist treatment of Catholics with Nazi treatment of the Jews, saying “despite an immediate apology, some of his closest allies were shocked by his private sentiments”.
Despite this there seems to be almost universal recognition that this was a man of courage who dedicated his life to peace, a man for whom life must often have been very difficult and even dangerous. May his brave soul rest in peace.