Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Fr Alec Reid death: It was a photo that shocked the world, but from that dark day a sliver of light appeared on the horizon

Fr Reid gives the last rites to David Howes, one of two soldiers killed by IRA after driving into a republican funeral in 1988 at a time of extreme tensions and ongoing violence
Fr Reid gives the last rites to David Howes, one of two soldiers killed by IRA after driving into a republican funeral in 1988 at a time of extreme tensions and ongoing violence

The stomach-churning yet strangely inspirational picture of Fr Alec Reid's compassionate humanity will live long after the rest of the people who remember the heartless inhumanity of that barbaric day in Belfast have died.

For it's a photograph that juxtaposes the good of one man who had tried to be a lifesaver with the evil of merciless killers. And for as long as historians need to illustrate the Northern Ireland tragedy they'll reprint that image of Fr Reid kneeling over the bloodied and near naked body of murdered soldier David Howes in Andersonstown, giving him the last rites.

Corporal Howes and his colleague Derek Wood had been dragged from their car and shot dead by the IRA in a week of murderous mayhem after they drove into the path of a republican funeral, and English photographer David Cairns' image of Fr Reid and the lifeless soldier was front page news across the world as Northern Ireland edged perilously to the precipice of anarchy.

The picture of the bewildered and clearly distraught Redemptorist priest painted a thousand words, but it didn't tell the whole story.

For it later emerged that Fr Reid (below) had with him secret documents which were part of an exchange of papers between the main Sinn Fein and SDLP representatives in a fledgling peace process which the priest was trying to facilitate.

Only minutes before the shooting the priest – dubbed the "padre of peace" – had been inside the nearby St Agnes' Church where, during a Requiem Mass, he took delivery of what was described as a position paper from a Sinn Fein figure for passing on to SDLP leader John Hume in Derry.

As Fr Reid anointed the soldiers, he and the brown envelope containing the papers were splattered with their blood – a powerfully symbolic happenstance which only strengthened his resolve to fight on for peace at a time when many were questioning not only his motives, but also his sanity, in a climate of growing hopelessness and fear.

Former Methodist president, the Rev Harold Good, likened his selfless aid for the soldiers to the parable of the Good Samaritan and he later joined Fr Reid on his quest to bring about an end to the violence, not only in Northern Ireland but also later on in the Basque Country.

The redoubtable double act witnessed the IRA's decommissioning of their weapons – the final move in the chess match of peace which had been played out firstly in the Maze/Long Kesh, where Fr Reid had once visited hunger strikers including Bobby Sands, and latterly in the sanctuary of his Clonard Monastery.

It was in prison that Gerry Adams met Fr Reid for the first time and they were to form an extraordinarily close friendship, where mutual trust was the cement which bound the odd couple together.

Adams called him Lazarus after the priest defied the medical experts to recover from a serious illness in the 1980s.

And during any of their peace talks which couldn't be conducted face-to-face, the two men devised a code based on terminology associated with Fr Alec's beloved game of hurling to update each other on the progress of their negotiations with other parties.

Fr Reid didn't play the media game, however. He was reluctant to talk to reporters and he didn't fully grasp the rules of engagement with them.

He seemed genuinely surprised that the Press would want to report on one of the lowest points of his career – a bitter clash with Protestant victims' campaigner Willie Frazer at a public meeting in Belfast's Fitzroy Presbyterian Church covered by TV, radio and newspaper journalists.

It was just after decommissioning and Frazer had been hostile in his challenges to the priest, but even he wasn't expecting the vitriolic response from Fr Reid who, one observer said, basically lost the run of himself, saying that unionists had treated the nationalist community like animals.

He snapped at Frazer: "You come from a community that should be absolutely ashamed of itself for the way it conducted politics in Northern Ireland for 60 years."

That wasn't the end of his tirade, however, and he added: "You're in the same category as Nazis as far as I'm concerned."

Frazer stormed out and rejected an apology from Fr Reid, who said he had lost his temper.

The row did untold damage to the priest's reputation among unionists and Protestants.

Friends said he was essentially a shy man who preferred the shadows to the spotlight.

But a friend said that once Fr Reid started talking, no donkey's hind legs were safe.

"He could have talked for Ireland," he added.

But Fr Reid was also a good listener, according to people who knew him from his peace-building days as he encouraged Provos and politicians alike to talk about the possibilities for an alternative to the bloodshed.

As a man of God, he was the devil of a man for any TV reporter to edit. On the rare occasions that he did interviews, he didn't do soundbites. He did expositions, which were nigh impossible to reduce to a 40-second clip.

In 2006 I hosted the Aisling Awards where the people of west Belfast honoured him as their Person of the Year.

I invited him to say a few words and drew his attention to an onstage note which urged speakers to 'Keep it brief'.

Fr Reid didn't pay a blind bit of notice as he rested his arm on the lectern and launched forth with his unscripted address. The longer he went on, the more the organisers on the sidelines urged me to stop him.

I tried, but it would have been easier to stop the Lagan than to halt Fr Reid in full flow.

Eventually one of the organisers came on stage in front of 500 hungry guests and told Fr Reid their dinners were getting cold.

Such was his innocence that he just about took the hint.

But only a few months earlier he'd also shown his humility at a news conference with Harold Good to confirm the IRA had decommissioned.

After a copy of the clerics' statements was circulated to journalists, a number of us asked the two men to autograph it. Fr Reid looked decidedly puzzled as to why anyone would want his signature.

He was nobody's fool, however, and he knew the full import of what he had achieved by helping to persuade the Provos to give up their armed struggle, which in his native Tipperary might have been seen as a betrayal of ancient republican ideologies.

The last thing he said to Gerry Adams from his Dublin hospital bed earlier this week was "Up Tipp" – a reference to his hurling heroes.

But to many people in Ireland Fr Reid, who died exactly half a century after President John F Kennedy, was a hero – a quiet peace-broker of a hero whose actions in silencing the IRA's guns spoke louder than his words.

He wasn't able, however, to stop the IRA guns killing the two corporals in Belfast 25 years ago. He tried to intervene after they were frogmarched into Casement Park before their deaths. But Fr Reid was told in no uncertain terms where to go.

It's a regret he took with him to his grave.

Father Alec Reid: tributes flow for ceasefire talks priest 

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