David McKittrick: Fr Reid truly was a priest who carried the message

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The ghastly image of Father Alec Reid, his face blood-stained after he had tried in vain to save the life of two soldiers, created near-despair in Belfast in 1988.

It appeared to signal that violence would never end; with the IRA, the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries locked in a never-ending conflict.

It was remembered as one of the darkest moments of the Troubles, generating fear that they were on the point of descending into new depths of inhumanity. More than 100 people died in that year.

Yet even at that low point clandestine dialogue was under way, involving the IRA, the Dublin authorities and British security agencies.

The priest’s blood-stained envelope – which no one knew of – was an indication that even as brutal violence continued at a high level a culture of subterranean contacts was developing.

The image of the blood-stained priest was all that was publicly known about Fr Reid then. It was to be many years later that it emerged that he was acting as intermediary between factions who were speaking to him even as they attempted to kill each other.

He linked up with Irish governments, Protestant clergymen and violent loyalists when keeping contact with paramilitary groups was denounced on all sides.

His role was summed up by Presbyterian clergyman, Rev Ken Newell, who said: “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.”