Belfast Telegraph

Troubles priest 'artisan of peace'

A Catholic priest who carried secret letters between the IRA and politicians was a humble peacemaker who worked for common ground when others hardened their hearts, his funeral Mass heard.

Fr Alec Reid, 82, was rewarded i n 1994 with the paramilitary ceasefires and four years later the Good Friday Agreement was signed which ended the decades-long conflict.

The Redemptorist also tried to save two soldiers shot dead in West Belfast by the IRA in a bear pit atmosphere in 1988 after they became trapped at a republican funeral and a photo of him praying over the dying troops became world famous.

He was trusted by all sides and this led to him overseeing the 2005 decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.

The cleric died in a Dublin hospital last week and his funeral was held at Clonard Church amid the winding streets of West Belfast where he preached his ministry of peace.

Former Irish President Mary McAleese said: "Into this tightly bound world of vanities where people refused to talk to other people because of a long list of becauses, where violence sharpened tongues and hardened hearts, there came the rather quiet and humble figure of Al Reid.

"He saw space for hope to grow where others saw impregnable citadels.

"He saw ways to soften hearts, he found words to persuade the estranged to talk to one another, to take a chance on one another, to find common ground.

"He believed that we were better than we had become."

In 1987 he had been asked to act as go-between when the IRA first made guarded suggestions of a ceasefire to the then Irish head of government Charles Haughey.

The cleric relayed messages between Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and the leader of non-violent nationalism, the SDLP's John Hume.

He facilitated a series of meetings between Mr Adams and Mr Hume, some in the Clonard Monastery close to where today's funeral was held, to establish a united nationalist front moving towards renouncing violence in favour of negotiation. Fr Reid also acted as a vital communications link between Sinn Fein and the Irish Government as the peace process developed momentum.

One of many nadirs of the conflict was summed up in the image of him on his knees, his face smeared in blood, as he delivered the Last Rites to two British soldiers dragged from their car, stabbed, beaten and shot. This was a profoundly brave step for anybody to take in the atmosphere of hatred and fear which surrounded events of that day.

Fr Michael Kelleher observed at his funeral: "Fr Alec's second lesson from the streets was that the dignity of the human person is the supreme moral value in all human affairs."

Inside his pocket as he prayed over the two soldiers was a blood-stained letter from Sinn Fein to Mr Hume.

The SDLP leader and Mr Adams were among hundreds attending the funeral. Also present were Stormont Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt and fellow IRA arms decommissioning monitor and senior Methodist clergyman the Reverend Harold Good.

During the service, Fr Kelleher also talked about lighter moments like when a nun prepared a room for a meeting between Fr Reid and the Sinn Fein and SDLP leaders.

"She splashed holy water copiously on the chairs and put miraculous medals under the cushions. I'm not sure is any of the three men noticed the dampness of the medals but Sr Eileen's prayers and the prayers of many others were eventually answered," he added.

He told of Fr Reid meeting the Queen after an invitation from Mrs McAleese.

"He gave the thumbs up to Her Majesty - I'm not sure that anybody had ever done that to Her Majesty before. It's a picture I'll remember of Fr Alec," the priest said.

Mrs McAleese said Fr Reid was a radical thinker in a community turned against itself by a toxic history which people are too often prepared to recreate in the present day.

"In this world of people barricaded against each other by contempt, fear and hatred, there often seemed precious little space for a culture of Christian love to flourish, for we Christians had mostly decided to love only our own denomination and to remain estranged from those who were not our very own," she added.

At the weekend a bomb partially exploded near a shopping centre, part of a surge by dissident republicans opposed to the peace process who sent letter bombs to senior police commanders and targeted police stations for attack.

Catholic bishop Noel Treanor said some were still locked in self-destructive conflict.

"In commending this artisan of peace to the mercy of God, we call on that small minority of people who continue to believe that violence, destruction and fear have any part in human affairs to think again," he added.

"We call on them, not in the tired and blood-soaked rhetoric of the past but in the hope-filled and positive language of the future, to which the children and young people of this generation attach their dreams, to stop their dark, futile and backward-looking violent activity now.

"Such activity has absolutely no basis in the will of the Irish people and is completely contrary to the will and call of God."

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