David McKittrick: There's a no man's land where few go – Fr Alec was one of them
Published 23/11/2013 | 02:00
Fr ALEC Reid was in a way a type of diplomat, in that he gave himself the task of forging relationships between different factions in Ireland and Britain.
But his was no ordinary diplomacy in that the elements he concerned himself with encompassed two democratic governments, various constitutional parties and armed groupings actively involved in bombings and shootings.
He started primarily by attempting to put Sinn Fein and the IRA in touch with London and Dublin. But most in government regarded his initiatives as too risky: Charles Haughey, for example, met the priest and listened to him, but concluded he should not get involved.
Fr Reid, in company with a few other priests, later cast his net wider, and succeeded in establishing regular contacts with senior Protestant clergymen such as the Rev Ken Newell. He even opened dialogue with some loyalist paramilitary figures, who at the time were heading groups which were killing many Catholics.
This key role in facilitating contacts between opposing elements was commended by Dr Newell, former moderator of the Presbyterian church, who said of him: "I have always seen him as an electrician.
"He took two wires where there was no current going across them, and he wrapped himself around them like tape and held them together until the current of communication began to flow."
Another Protestant clergyman, the Rev Harold Goode said yesterday: "There is a no man's land into which very few people are prepared to go and Fr Alec was one such person."
One of his most striking breakthroughs was to start up the Adams relationship with John Hume, with the two party leaders launching a joint initiative known as "Hume-Adams."
Many have today forgotten just how radioactive such initiatives were, for while the IRA remained in violent action Sinn Fein were political pariahs.
Most parties would not speak to them and many would not appear in the same television studio.
The British government already had a line of contact with republicans, but it was exploratory rather than substantive – and completely deniable.
Ministers repeatedly denied its existence until it was unearthed and publicised by journalistic digging.
Today at Stormont dialogue – though not always friendly – has become the order of the day in the fledgling coalition government, with republican ministers meeting David Cameron.
Fr Reid will be remembered, along with John Hume and Albert Reynolds, for laying the groundwork for this new system.
They nurtured the idea that, after decades of death and violent deadlock, London and republicanism were prepared to consider accommodation rather than victory.
Such talking took years to produce an agreement, but eventually it came to be accepted that no one was going to win the war and that dialogue and compromise were the way ahead. Fr Reid was one of first to realise that, and to work to bring it about.
He was associated with both war and peace; a photograph of him attempting to revive two soldiers who had just been murdered by the IRA on March 6, 1988, was one of the best-known images of the Troubles.
Corporals David Howes and Derek Wood were beaten and shot after driving into the cortege of a victim of a mourner shot just three days earlier by gunman Michael Stone at Milltown cemetery.
"I felt I had done my best to save them," he said later, "but I had failed to save them. I felt it was a tragedy that I had tried to stop and didn't."
That awful sight, in 1988, was a rare public glimpse of a man who conducted most of his efforts in secrecy, attempting to persuade republicans to give up the gun and switch to politics.
The other part of his mission was to persuade the rest of the world that it was worth holding exploratory talks with Gerry Adams, whom he had known for decades.
Most of those he approached closed the door in his face since the IRA campaign was still raging and resulting in deaths such as those of the soldiers.
One of his most notable breakthroughs came when former SDLP leader John Hume accepted his invitation to meet Adams in Clonard monastery in the Falls Road district of Belfast, where the priest was based for 40 years.
That meeting began a dialogue, at first in secret, which lasted for many years.
Fr Reid was also part of a web of clandestine contacts which involved senior Dublin figures such as Albert Reynolds and Martin Mansergh.
Fr Reid's approach made his own church nervous, since his insistence that inclusion was the key to peace was at odds with prevailing church teaching. Catholic bishops took the position that those involved in violence were to be shunned and isolated rather than spoken to.
Former Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy said the important thing about him was that he was trusted by both sides as a man "of enormous integrity and honesty".
This meant that his assurance that he had personally witnessed the IRA decommissioning its weapons carried great weight.
Unionists were, however, offended when, during a heated moment at a public meeting, he rounded on a loyalist heckler and snapped: "You're in the same category as the Nazis." He later apologised for his words.
Albert Reynolds's wife Kathleen once recalled: "Fr Reid was nearly the cause of the breakup of our marriage. You wouldn't be in bed an hour when he would ring.
"He was a very insistent man – he had been so long trying, that once he got some light at the end of the tunnel he was going to make sure he held on to it."