An Irish priest who played a key role in brokering peace in Northern Ireland has died. Father Alec Reid, 82, acted as a clandestine go-between ferrying messages to and from republicans and the British and Irish governments in the earliest stages of the peace process in the 1980s.
During the Troubles, his image was seared into the public consciousness when he was pictured kneeling over the bloodied corpse of one of two British soldiers he performed the last rites on after they were beaten and murdered by a republican mob in west Belfast in 1988. Years later, with paramilitary ceasefires delivered and the 1998 Good Friday peace accord signed, he acted as an independent witness to the decommissioning of the IRA’s arsenal of weapons.
The Redemptorist order of Catholic priests, of which the Co Tipperary-born cleric was a member, announced that he died peacefully in hospital in Dublin at 6.40am yesterday. The Irish President Michael D Higgins led tributes to the late cleric, who in his later years made Dublin his home.
“Fr Reid will perhaps best be remembered for the courageous part he played in identifying and nurturing the early seeds of an inclusive peace process,” he said. “Fr Reid’s role as a channel for peace laid the ground for the achievement of the IRA ceasefire and created the political space for the multi-party talks that ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement. Fr Reid would have been gratified by the positive transformation that is under way throughout Northern Ireland, and especially in the Belfast that he loved so well.”
The cleric had a long association with Clonard church in west Belfast and his funeral will be held there on Wednesday. He was a key confidante of the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and the republican leader trusted him to ferry messages to and from the then Social Democratic and Labour Party leader John Hume and contacts in the British and Irish governments.
Mr Adams said Fr Reid was tenacious in his efforts to end the conflict. “There would not be a peace process at this time without his diligent doggedness and his refusal to give up,” the Sinn Fein leader added.
Seven years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Fr Reid was again called upon to help the peace process move on. The presence of the cleric as the IRA put their weapons beyond use was vital in convincing those sceptical of republicans’ intentions.
The priest once famously recalled that an armed IRA member present for the decommissioning act handed over his assault rifle, which Fr Reid said became the last weapon to be “put beyond use”.
“The man handed it over and got quite emotional,” said Fr Reid. “He was aware that this was the last gun.”