The peace ministry of Alec Reid

JOHN McFALL

The peace ministry of Alec Reid

Throughout my interest in Irish politics, and during my time in the Northern Ireland Office, the name of Fr. Alec Reid featured regularly.  I never had the privilege of meeting him but I heard many a reference from Nationalist and Unionists about the role he played in helping to broker a successful outcome to the peace process.

The recently published book, One Man, One God: the Peace Ministry of Fr Alec Reid brings together a collection of material that documents his peace ministry.

He was a Tipperary man from a stout Republican background, who had an almost fanatical interest in Gaelic sports, particularly hurling.  Near his last words to a well-known visitor shortly before his death in 2013 were ‘Up Tipp’.

Yet this was a man whose ministry to the stranger was so strong that, without his involvement, the Good Friday Agreement may never have materialised.

He saw himself as a servant of Christ suffering, immersed in a maelstrom of political and social conflict.  And suffer he did, beginning with the early 1980’s attempt to resolve the prison hunger strikes peacefully.  The deaths of ten young Republican prisoners left him so distressed that he was admitted to hospital.  Yet from that time on, his poor health and physical fragility did not diminish his resolve to help build peace on the island of Ireland right up to his death in 2013.

Two characteristics defined his approach throughout the years.

Firstly, by simply listening.  He believed that only by listening to the deep and bitter conflict itself can one discover the formula for peace.  Here his scriptural guideline was ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us’.  In other words, the way to peace is to be found within the conflict itself by listening in a spirit of Christian compassion and discernment.  The Christian must know the conflict ‘from within’ rather than ‘from without’.

Early on this listening disposition saw him and his colleague Fr. Des Wilson fulfil, at the request of Gerry Adams, a crucial role in successfully negotiating an end to the Belfast inter-Republican feuds by establishing an arbitration and mediation process.  On the wider political front this approach resulted in a breakthrough by the simple device of a handwritten letter in May 1986 from Alec to John Hume, inviting him and Gerry Adams to Clonard monastery to ‘explore whether there could be a nationalist strategy for justice and peace’.  This proved the slow burning catalyst for the eventual breakthrough many years later of the successful Stormont Castle talks, which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement.  So the seed was sown at Clonard, located on the peace line and a place of refuge for suffering people, where the first casualty of the Troubles was killed in August 1969 in the street behind the monastery.

Secondly, Alec’s ministry was characterised by ‘reaching out’ to the folks on the ‘other side’ in the spirit of peace.  He formed many solid and lasting friendships.  Touching funeral eulogies were given by Rev Ken Newell and Rev Harold Good.  Ken Newell was a former chaplain to the Orange Order who, in his own words, exercised a distaste for Irish nationalism and a dislike of Catholicism.  Yet he was able to declare that Alec was a living icon of Christian peacemaking, a friend whose faith continues to inspire and a brother in Christ whose companionship he felt privileged to share.

Rev Harold Good was tasked, alongside Alec, to be an independent witness to the decommissioning of IRA weapons (both were also involved in attempting a peace process in the Basque Country).  At this occasion Alec turned to Harold and declared: ‘There goes the last gun out of Irish politics’.  ‘What a moment for Alec, a true peacemaker, and all of us’ said Harold.

As a close observer I recognise the crucial and brave role undertaken by politicians, especially local ones, over many years, in closing the circle and ensuring the commitment of all to peaceful and democratic engagement.

As this book demonstrates the spadework is done at local level in the community.  Paradoxically, the bringing together of the more strident and dogmatic political entities, namely Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led to the demise of the more mainstream Nationalist and Ulster Unionist parties, none of which have representation in parliament today.  Tragically, in my opinion, it saw the crumbling of the Civic Forum and in particular the Womens Coalition.

My good friend, the indomitable Baroness May Blood, a community activist from the very heart of Belfast’s Shankhill Road, is persisting to this day in attempting to resurrect the Civic Forum, which is an important part of the Good Friday agreement.  She is mindful of the fear which still exists in both communities at being identified as one engaged in such peacebuilding activities.  ‘Oh for another Alec Reid’, she said to me when we caught up for a chat recently.

As close friends observed, it was Alec’s determined and often humorous friendship with paramilitaries on both sides that held everyone together and in the process repaired the power lines of communication severed by the onset of the Troubles in 1968.

His was a gospel of the streets, evidenced dramatically in the tragically iconic image of him forlornly stretched over two British soldiers in an attempt to shelter them from execution by a violent and deranged mob following the Milltown cemetery shootings by a loyalist paramilitary

It is our duty not to squander, but to preserve s legacy by continually striving in the name of peace.

John McFall is Senior Deputy Speaker in the House of Lords.  He was a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office from 1998-1999.

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