News Gerard O'Regan

Friday 19 September 2014

Fr Reid fulfilled his mission on unforgiving streets

Gerard O'Regan

Published 30/11/2013 | 02:30

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Priests carry the coffin of  Catholic Priest Alec Reid from Clonard Monastery, West Belfast
Priests carry the coffin of Catholic Priest Alec Reid from Clonard Monastery, West Belfast
Fr Alec Reid gives the last rites over the body of one of the British Army Corporals killed in Andersontown in March 1988.

The craggy, weather-worn features would be more usual in a west of Ireland farmer, who milked his cows, tended his crops and took his satisfactions from the rhythm of the seasons.

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But there was no rustic tranquillity in the life of Fr Alec Reid, who they buried this week – as sometimes friends and former foes came to say their last goodbye.

Alec Reid made his mark not in some pastoral setting, but in the hard, unforgiving, mean streets of Belfast, when that city was torn apart by mayhem and murder during the Northern Ireland Troubles.

His features will be forever etched in the consciousness of many, who will recall perhaps the single most iconic photograph to reflect the hatred, which drove on and on those blood-soaked years.

It is a picture of utter desolation as Fr Reid glances in bewilderment at the camera. He is on his knees having given the last rites to the mutilated body of a British soldier, who moments earlier had been tortured and shot dead, in a frenzied bout of killing. He had "blundered'' into an IRA funeral.

Death. Revenge. Retribution. Death. Such was the cycle in the Northern Ireland of those years.

There is also a terrible, wistful loneliness in the picture from those dark days of 1988. The priest and a dying or dead man are framed in the pastel shades of what the media at the time described as "waste ground".

Confronted by life and death in such graphic form in that barren place, Fr Reid instinctively knelt beside the body. He uttered the ancient Catholic prayers for the soldier whose life had slipped away.

Fr Reid was at heart a nationalist. But this and other events would give him an unique ability to straddle both sides of an unforgiving sectarian divide. His genius was that he could balance the scales of hate without fear or favour. It gave him profound moral authority.

He, of course, would never have wished for any of this. But chance and circumstance, and that aura of rock-solid integrity, cast him into the unlikely role of a kind of peace messenger. He would operate in a twilight world of secrecy and danger.

His base was Clonard monastery – a name more redolent of a sanctuary in deepest Wicklow rather than the heart of Belfast. The Redemptorists had been there since the early part of the last century, but during the years of conflict the building became a kind of echo chamber for the Troubles. Terror, and counter terror, had its way, often just yards from their front door.

In time, Fr Reid's role as secret emissary between the hard men and some of the harder men in the conflict would grow. Some of them had killed. Some would be killed.

But he would ferry secret messages and set up clandestine meetings between bitter enemies who could not, or would not, risk meeting face to face. It was all part of a tortuous road to peace – and he was determined to stay on the journey no matter what.

He became a linkman between political parties and paramilitaries and had clandestine contacts with British agents. It was a triangle of mutual suspicion and distrust, where one wrong move could have the most appalling of consequences.

At one point he helped broker an uneasy peace between various republican factions, which had developed into a vicious spiral of bloodletting.

Eventually a Protestant minister would join him in the most secret of places where IRA guns would be decommissioned and put beyond use. On that fateful day, an armed man stood watch on the two clergymen as one by one the guns were destroyed. Then finally his gun was also put out of action. It was a sombre moment.

He spent many dark days trying to find out what had happened the so-called disappeared – those who had been killed and buried without trace.

Alec Reid grew up in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, where he attended the local CBS. A degree in English, history and philosophy at UCG followed. His life could have been so much different.

But as a young man he was sent to Belfast, where he ministered for the next 44 years. It is right he was buried in Milltown cemetery, a place where so much of Northern Ireland's agony has had its final drama. Catholic and Protestant came to say their final farewell.

When he made the final crossing this week, he carried countless secrets with him to his grave. He had seen much of life at its most raw and brutal. He had pleaded for reason, calm, tolerance and forgiveness, when the desire for destruction threatened to dwarf the entire island.

He may get no more than a footnote in the history books of the future. But he uniquely helped silence the guns.

Fr Alec Reid did more than his bit for Ireland north and south. For us all.

Irish Independent

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