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Fr Alec Reid, Belfast priest who acted as broker between IRA and British Government, dies aged 82


Father Alec Reid administered the last rites to two soldiers murdered by the IRA in Belfast

Father Alec Reid administered the last rites to two soldiers murdered by the IRA in Belfast

PA Archive/Press Association Images

Father Alec Reid administered the last rites to two soldiers murdered by the IRA in Belfast

Fr Alec Reid, the Belfast priest who acted as a broker between the IRA and British Government during the Northern Ireland peace process has died.

Fr 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.

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.

During the Troubles, his image was seared into the public conscious 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.

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.

Irish President Michael D Higgins led tributes to the late cleric, who in his later years made Dublin 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.

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"Fr Reid's role as a channel for peace laid the ground for the achievement of the IRA cease-fire and created the political space for the multi-party talks that ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement. While he spent the last few years of his life in Dublin, 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 will be especially remembered for his work in the Northern Ireland peace process," the Redemptorist order said.

Fr Reid was a key confidante of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and the republican leader trusted him to ferry messages to and from the then Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader John Hume and contacts in the British and Irish governments.

Mr Adams today described the cleric's former base in Clonard as "the cradle of the peace process".

He said he 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," said the Sinn Fein leader.

Mr Adams, who recently visited Fr Reid at his hospital bed, said he and the cleric had many discussions during the Troubles about how the violence might be ended.

"Out of those conversations emerged a commitment to dialogue as the first necessary step along that process and a commencement of a process in the early 1980s to commence a process of dialogue with the Catholic hierarchy, SDLP leader John Hume and the Irish and British governments," he 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 and Methodist minister the Rev Harold Good 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."

Seventeen years earlier, the cleric witnessed the brutality of IRA violence first hand when he tried desperately to save the lives of the two soldiers who had inadvertently driven into the funeral procession of an IRA member.

He was unable to stop corporals David Howes and Derek Wood being beaten and shot, having been threatened with death if he did not get out of the way.

The vicious mob killings in broad daylight was one of the most shocking incidents of the entire Troubles.

While the dramatic picture of the cleric knelt beside corporal Howes was beamed around the world, no one would know until years later that beneath his coat that day Fr Reid was actually carrying an envelope containing one of the numerous top secret messages he ferried between Sinn Fein and Mr Hume.

Poignantly the envelope was splashed with the blood of the soldiers.

The churchman's career was not without controversy.

In 2005 he prompted outrage in some quarters when he likened the unionist treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland in the past to the Nazis' treatment of the Jews.

He later apologised, though the episode did prompt a police investigation into alleged incitement to hate. No prosecution was ultimately taken.

Mr Hume today described the late cleric as a friend and "pillar of the peace process".

"Without his courage, determination and utter selflessness, the road to peace in our region would have been much longer and much more difficult to traverse," he said.

"A man of faith and deep conviction, his commitment to our people was a key part of the foundation on which our early, fragile peace was built.

He added: "While we mourn the loss of a great man, we must also celebrate the legacy of peace and an opportunity to reconcile our people that he gave to us. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to waste."

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers also paid tribute to the cleric.

"I heard with sadness of the death of Father Reid," she said. "We all owe a debt of gratitude to him for the role he played in the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland."

Irish deputy prime minister Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said he was deeply saddened.

"Father Reid made an essential contribution to the peace process during its most challenging and crucial periods," he said.

"He played a critical but also an unseen role at its very origins."

Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness also hailed Fr Reid's contribution.

"I was saddened to hear of the death of Fr Alec Reid and I convey my sincere sympathies to his entire family and friends at this time," said Mr Robinson.

"Alec opposed violence and understood that the key to making progress was through reaching out to others, regardless of their background."

Mr McGuinness said: "He played a crucial role in helping to initiate and build the peace process and all that has flowed from it. He understood the need for democracy and dialogue and was prepared to make personal sacrifices in order to deliver for the good of everyone in society.

"Fr Alec Reid was a man of great dignity and his service to society embodied decency and respect for everyone. He made an immeasurable contribution to the peace process and he has left a legacy of peace and hope for a better future for all."

Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny said Fr Reid made major contributions at many critical times during the peace process.

"Fr Reid was a key figure in the peace process. He hosted a series of talks in 1994 which marked the beginning of a process upon which the 1998 Belfast Agreement was built," Mr Kenny said.

"Like so many people on this island, I will never forget the tragic picture in 1988, when Fr Reid was photographed administering the last rites to a British army soldier killed in west Belfast, demonstrating his deep respect for human dignity and life."

Micheal Martin, leader of Fianna Fail, said he was always struck by Fr Reid's humility and compassion for people on all sides of the Troubles.

"Fr Reid was a visionary and we all owe him a debt of gratitude for the lasting peace that he helped bring about," he said.

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