A Catholic priest has spoken for the first time of how he tried to protect two British soldiers from being shot by the IRA by lying on the ground between them in the minutes before they were killed.
Father Alec Reid told how he was threatened with death as he tried to prevent the IRA killing the soldiers in Belfast during one of the most fraught periods of the Troubles.
In a graphic description of how they were shot and killed in cold blood, Fr Reid described how he was heaved away by the IRA gunmen, one of them telling him: “Get up, or I’ll f***ing well shoot you as well.”
The Falls Road-based priest went to the soldiers and attempted to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, during which his lips became covered with blood. When he realised they were dead, he gave them the last rites.
In 14 Days, a BBC1 documentary to be broadcast tonight which traces the events that were part of a violent and traumatic sequence 25 years ago, he revealed the blood of one of the soldiers splashed an envelope he was carrying. In it was one of a series of messages from republicans to the nationalist politician John Hume which are credited with helping bring about the IRA’s eventual ceasefire. The priest changed the blood-stained envelope and delivered the message.
The deaths and other shocking events of March 1988 convulsed Northern Ireland, but are now viewed by many as a turning point which helped move the peace process forward, with Fr Reid seen an vital element in the process.
In the programme, produced by DoubleBand Films, Protestant minister the Very Rev Ken Newell said of Fr Reid’s efforts to promote dialogue: “In many ways he was a visionary; he was the one who saw the first crocus of the spring.”
The events began with the SAS killings in Gibraltar of three IRA members who were intent on blowing up a British army band. As their funerals were taking place in Belfast, a loyalist gunman Michael Stone attacked mourners, killing three of them.
During the funeral of one of those three, two plainclothes soldiers in an unmarked car drove into the cortege. There they were surrounded by republicans, dragged from their car, beaten and partially stripped.
In an intense and emotional interview, Fr Reid recalled seeing the soldiers being taken from their car and dragged to a sports ground. He said: “They put the two of them face down on the ground and I got down between the two of them on my face, and I had my arm around this one and I was holding this one by the shoulder.
“They were so disciplined, they just lay there totally still and I decided to myself that these must be soldiers.”
He recalled: “When I was lying between the two soldiers I remember saying to myself, ‘This shouldn’t be happening in a civilised society.’ That motivated me to get away from this kind of society where this kind of thing could happen.
“Somebody came in and picked me up and said, ‘Get up, or I’ll f***ing well shoot you as well,’ and he said, ‘Take him away.’ Two of them came on either shoulder and manoeuvred me out.”
He went on: “I can remember the atmosphere. You could feel it. I knew they were going to be shot. I can remember thinking, ‘They are going to shoot these men.’”
The IRA took the soldiers away and he heard two shots. He found the soldiers and tried to help them, but they were dead, so he anointed then. Two women then came over with a coat and put it over the head of one of the soldiers, saying, “He was somebody’s son.”
The priest concluded: “I felt I had done my best to save them, but I had failed to save them. I felt it was a tragedy that I had tried to stop and didn’t.”
He said he went back to the monastery where he was based and changed the envelope he was carrying, which contained a Sinn Fein document on how to resolve the conflict, because the blood of one of the soldiers was on it.
Fr Reid’s role was commended by the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, who said: “Would we have got a peace process without him? Yes, but not of the particular type, and certainly not at the time. There’s no doubt whatsoever that he saved lives.”