Rev. Harold Good offers his perspective of the peace process
When Rev. Harold Good’s maternal grandfather, Isaac Allen, stored arms for the Ulster Volunteer Force in the roof space of his Co. Armagh cottagein 1914 he could not have imagined that a grandson of his would officially witness republicans bidding farewell to their weapons after a long bloody conflict 91 years later.
“Thank God those old UVF weapons were, to the best of our knowledge never used in anger and that the IRA weapons I saw decommissioned will never cause harm again,” says Derry-born Rev. Good (76) as he reflects on his critical role in the peace process which made headlines around the world.
Remarkable is an overused adjective but it appears apt to describe a man who somehow in the maelstrom of Northern Ireland managed to be acceptable both to the Rev. Ian Paisley and to the IRA as a witness to decommissioning.
Harold Good, OBE, peace-maker, ecumenist, former President of the Methodist Church and confidant of politicians across the spectrum says that if the walls of the back room of his modest discreetly situated home near Holywood in north Down could talk there would be enough to fill a large book.
His west Cork-born, Enniskillen-based father, Rev. R.J. Good, was also President of the Methodist Church and in that role visited Dublin in 1959 to engage with what he called the “revolutionary movement”.
Married to Clodagh, (nee Coad) from Waterford, he is the father of five and the brother of Rev. Peter Good, also a Methodist minister “and peacemaker” in Omagh at the time of the 1998 bomb who died prematurely from “terrible stress” within three years of the massacre.
He says four years of gruelling work and study in the US in the 1960s, within two years of his ordination, prepared him for what was to follow.
He pastored to a black community in Ohio devastated by the murder of Martin Luther King and studied for a Masters in pastoral psychology which taught him to be “non-judgemental and empathetic”.
Then posted to the Shankill Road – “I was on the Road the night Constable Arbuckle was killed [by the UVF] and one of the first to visit his widow.” It was 1969 and Victor Arbuckle was the first RUC victim of the Troubles.
Later as director of the Corrymeela Community he would meet IRA figures for the first time planting seeds of trust that would come to fruition with significant results many years later.
Rev. Good is extremely circumspect about the final comprehensive act of IRA decommissioning in September 2005 which he witnessed alongside the other independent clergyman witness, the late Fr Alex Reid.
Still he will share with The Irish Catholic readers some information not previously in the public domain.
Top secret process
He discloses that he interrupted the top secret process to ensure that the weapons were being “put securely out of reach in a way that satisfied my requirements”.
The IRA representative present “had absolutely no hesitation whatever” in acceding to his request.
Rev. Good refuses to be drawn on precisely what weakness he had identified in the initial arrangements and how it had been addressed during the clandestine operation that lasted at least a week.
He would never break “the confidentiality, the trust that was invested in me” when he was chosen as an independent witness to allay the grave doubts of unionists.
However he recalls: “I remember one occasion I was a bit uneasy that something could have been done better in terms of putting the stuff beyond reach and I brought this to the attention of the General [John de Chastelain].
“I thought that was part of my role because I was representing the people out there [who had to be convinced].”
His intervention “meant quite an adjustment to the schedule and the actual effort involved, to meet my requirement”.
“I am always asked what did I see. What I saw was important but what I heard was more important because what I heard was that this was serious business and that there was a huge commitment to the exercise [by the IRA].”
But how could he be sure they were so serious and that he was not being taken for a ride?
“Amongst other things they didn’t want another generation to go through what they had gone through.
“I found the people who were involved in this exercise to be utterly genuine and sincere in what they were doing.”
In his report to the British and Irish Governments General de Chastlelain, who headed the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, said “…we believe the arms decommissioned represent the totality of the IRA’s arsenal”.
Rev. Good said it was “crucial that the inventory of stuff compiled by de Chastelain tallied with the estimates held by British and Irish intelligence and it did”.
Fr Alec Reid
He speaks with warmth and affection about his friend and fellow witness, the late Fr Alec Reid, citing Olivia O’Leary’s comment on BBC Radio 4 “In every conflict there is a no man’s land into which few will dare to go. Fr Alex was one who did.”
He was “nobody’s fool” but “there was a certain innocence about him” and he confirms there were several times when he gently gestured to him not to say too much, including during a meeting with the Rev. Ian Paisley which Mr Paisley referred to in his recent Eamonn Mallie interview.
If we are all formed by our backgrounds and by forbears we have never known, that applies in particular to Harold Good.
While his maternal grandfather stored weapons to fight Home Rule his paternal grandfather, Peter Good, from Skibbereen “a man of principle” left the RIC and a good job rather than take part in land evictions at the end of the 19th Century.
He still has a billhead dated July 11, 1922 recording that Commandant Whelan of the IRA purchased £70 worth of shoes and belts from his uncle and aunt’s shop in Dungarvan.
They would have had no sympathy for the IRA, would have had no choice in the matter but would have appreciated the custom.
“My background makes it very difficult for me to define myself politically”, he says.
“The Churches are part of the problem and we have a responsibility to be part of the solution.”
He sees nothing approaching “the inspired leadership” of both Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby “who are prepared to challenge the world” among the Churches in Ireland.
If he had his way the Presbyterian Moderator and Methodist President would be elected for five years rather than for one so they could make an impact and he wryly suggests that a five-year stint “would ensure you got the right person”.
He would like to see “a head-on confrontation between our Church leaders and our political leaders” in which the Churches would “challenge ridiculous statements from, say, a First Minister or a Deputy First Minister”.
He likens the present structure around the four Church leaders to “a heavy locomotive” needing reform.
The two primates and the moderator and president should have “a full-time four person B team working on the ground responding quickly and with the clout to inform and guide them on what is happening and not happening and on what they should say and do.”
The post-Haass impasse at Stormont is rooted in Unionist insecurity though “they are hard pressed to tell us what they have lost”.
In contrast he sees security “in the relatively measured speeches of Gerry Adams and Martin [McGuinness] at the recent ard fheis”.
He describes the refusal of some unionist politicians to even say hello to Deputy First Minister McGuinness in the corridors of Stormont “as tragic and contrary to every basic rule of being human”.
He accepts that there can be no reconciliation of the respective past narratives of either community or on national aspirations “but that doesn’t mean that people can’t unite around to each other’s advantage and benefit”.
The chances of this happening would be greatly enhanced if the Stormont politicians could bring to the table “confession or honesty, grace or generosity and forgiveness”.
That may be an elusive goal but Harold Good will never give up on it.