IRA ceasefire 20 years on: The priest who brokered the peace

Fr Alec Reid

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It is an iconic image, encapsulating the horror of the Troubles. Father Alec Reid kneels in a Belfast car park as he administers the last rites over the bloodied, near naked body of a British soldier.

Two British Army corporals had just been tortured and shot in broad daylight after driving into an IRA funeral.

Key events leading to the IRA ceasefire

IRA members

The violence in Northern Ireland seemed to have spiralled completely out of control.

Yet the contents of a blood soaked envelope Fr Reid was carrying that day would set in motion a chain of events that led to an IRA ceasefire, and ultimately a lasting peace.

Twenty years on from the IRA's ceasefire on 31 August 1994, veteran BBC journalist and author Peter Taylor has been reflecting on the part Fr Reid played in stopping the violence.

"The role Fr Reid played in bringing about the peace process was absolutely critical. He was one of the real non-combatant, non-politician peacemakers. He was a remarkable man, who played a really important role historically," he said.

Just how did a priest come to play such a crucial part in the peace process?

Early days

Father Reid was ordained as a priest of the Redemptorist Order of the Catholic Church in 1957.

Life of Father Alec Reid

Fr Alec Reid
  • Born in County Tipperary in 1931 and raised in Nenagh in the county.
  • Joined the Redemptorist Order spending four decades at Clonard Monastery in west Belfast.
  • In March 1988 gave the last rites to two British soldiers murdered after driving into an IRA funeral cortege.
  • Facilitated talks between Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams and SDLP leader John Hume.
  • Witnessed, with Methodist minister Harold Good, decommissioning of IRA weapons in September 2005.
  • Caused outrage among unionists in the same year when he compared them to Nazis. He later apologised.
  • He tried to help broker an end to Eta's campaign in the Basque region in Spain.
  • Died in a Dublin hospital on 22 November 2013

He moved to Clonard monastery in Belfast in 1961, where he would work for the next 40 years.

Clonard is situated on one of Belfast's many sectarian fault lines and was right on the coalface when the violence began in Northern Ireland in 1969, with riots and shootings commonplace in the area.

Engaging in dialogue

While the violence intensified in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 80s, Fr Reid was among those looking for a way to bring peace.

In an interview for the BBC documentary 14 Days he explained what motivated him:

"I used to say that I don't belong to any political party, but I represent the next person who is going to be killed in the troubles. The church has a moral obligation to get stuck in when people are suffering and to try and stop it."

He felt it was imperative to bring nationalist and republican parties together and to get the IRA to renounce violence in favour of negotiation.

It was a high risk strategy. It required John Hume, the leader of the nationalist SDLP, and a vocal proponent of non-violence, to engage with the republican party Sinn Féin, regarded as political pariahs at the time due to their links with the IRA.

Peter Taylor believes the importance of Father Reid's role at this time cannot be over-estimated.

Northern Ireland's 30 years of conflict

Everyday life during the Troubles in Northern Ireland

"I think Fr Reid's role was enormous in liaising with John Hume and Gerry Adams to encourage the IRA to make the momentous steps that it eventually did," he said.

"Fr Reid had to be trusted by all parties on the nationalist/republican side of the conflict."

Fr Reid persuaded Hume to engage in secret talks with Adams, which initially took place at Clonard, with the priest acting as mediator. The two parties eventually began formal dialogue in January 1988. But the beginning of talks did not mean an end to the violence.

14 dark days

In fact some of the worst days of the Troubles were still to come. During 14 days in March 1988, a sequence of traumatic events left Northern Ireland teetering on the edge of a dangerous precipice.

The spiral of violence began on 6 March when three members of an IRA unit were shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar. As their funerals were taking place in Belfast's Milltown cemetery 10 days later, loyalist gunman Michael Stone launched a gun and grenade attack on mourners, killing three and wounding more than 50.

Start Quote

The church has a moral obligation to get stuck in when people are suffering and to try and stop it”

End Quote Father Alec Reid

Among Stone's victims was IRA member Kevin Brady. At his funeral three days later, two British Army corporals in civilian clothing, David Howes and Derek Wood, drove into the funeral cortege. Their car was immediately surrounded by a mob and the soldiers were overpowered.

They were dragged away, stripped, beaten and taken to nearby waste ground where they were shot dead by the IRA.

In attendance at the funeral, Fr Reid witnessed the fracas and attempted to intervene, even getting between the men after they had been forced to the ground and pleading with their attackers not to kill them. But the priest was warned that he could be shot and was himself dragged away.

In the 14 Days documentary he described the scene and how he was deeply affected by their death:

"I walked up to this area of waste ground. There was nobody else there, just the two bodies. I went up to the one nearest to me, and he seemed still to be breathing, so I tried to give him the kiss of life. I felt I had done my best to save them, but I had failed. I was very shocked. It was a tragedy."

Father Alec Reid was a key figure in the Northern Ireland peace process, as Gareth Gordon reports

Blood soaked envelope

Cameraman David Cairns captured Father Reid, with blood on his cheek. kneeling beside the corporal's body. This moment of compassion amidst the brutality was shown around the world.

It wasn't until years later that people would learn that beneath his coat that day the priest was carrying an envelope which would bring hope in the midst of the despair.

John Hume had suggested that both sides put their political solution for settling the conflict on paper and Fr Reid had collected Sinn Féin's position from Gerry Adams. He was still carrying it with him at the funeral.

"I had held onto the letter but I had to change the envelope, as the blood of one of the soldiers was on it. I went to see John Hume in Derry that afternoon and gave him this paper from Gerry Adams."

The letter helped enable the crucial first steps of the peace process and this period of violence intensified the resolve of Fr Reid and other church, community and political figures to achieve peace.

Talks continued and Fr Reid would act as a go-between with the Irish government for the next decade. The British government also re-opened secret contacts with the IRA leadership that were first established in 1972.

IRA ceasefire

Reporting the 1994 IRA ceasefire

On 31 August 1994 the IRA declared a "complete cessation of military operations". This was the culmination of Fr Reid's hopes for the years of talks he had facilitated.

This was a hugely important moment as it allowed Sinn Féin to be involved in all-party talks, which would pave the way for the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought nationalists and unionists in government together, in a power-sharing assembly.

This agreement was eventually amended by the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, which saw former enemies Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness becoming Northern Ireland's first and deputy first ministers in 2007.

Pilloried and praised

During his later years, Fr Reid was also involved in peace efforts in the Basque region in Spain. In January 2003, he was awarded the Sabino Arana 2002 World Mirror prize in Bilbao, in recognition of his efforts at promoting peace and reconciliation.

He was also one of the witnesses who confirmed the decommissioning of IRA weapons in 2005, which was a critical hurdle that needed to be overcome to keep Northern Ireland's fragile peace alive.

IRA bombing campaign in England

The wrecked interior of the Mulberry Bush public house, Birmingham, after an IRA bombing on 21 November 1974

His career was not without controversy. He angered unionists at a public meeting in 2005 when he likened the unionist treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland in the past to the Nazis' treatment of the Jews. Fr Reid later apologised saying his remarks were made in the heat of the moment.

On 22 November 2013 Fr Reid died in a Dublin hospital, with tributes flowing in from across the world, with the British Ministry of Defence acknowledging his efforts, saying: "Fr Alec Reid's intervention to administer last rites epitomised his faith and strength of conviction. His comfort was given amidst the enormous fears and tension on that terrible day in March 1988."

Father Reid's legacy

For Peter Taylor, there is a lingering regret regarding the priest.

"Sadly he was one of the few people involved in making peace that I never got to know. At the time I was making the Provos series, he didn't want to talk and I respected that. I was very sorry that I couldn't persuade him," he said.

While many people were involved in the lengthy process of bringing peace to Northern Ireland, journalist Brian Rowan assessed Fr Reid's legacy in the 14 Days documentary:

"I think when the historians look back on 30 years of conflict here, and on the journey of war to peace, the story will not be told without the name of Alec Reid right in the middle of it all."

Watch BBC Northern Ireland's documentary Ceasefire

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