Clonard is a place of pilgrimage. They came in their thousands this week to say a final goodbye to a good priest, a close friend, a gentle and kind hearted man, and as courageous and humble a human being as you could ever hope to meet.
Fr. Alec Reid died in his sleep in the early hours of last Friday morning. I had been with him the previous Thursday and he was in good form. Talkative, funny and enjoying his hospital tea in St. Vincent’s in Dublin. But his condition deteriorated. I was phoned on Thursday night and told that he only had days. I arranged to travel down on Friday to visit him but shortly after 9am on Friday morning we got word that he had quietly passed in his sleep.
I was deeply shocked and saddened at his death. For forty years I have known him as a good friend to me and my family, and a selfless and unstinting worker in the search for justice and peace. In the midst of hard times Fr. Reid was always there offering comfort and solidarity and advice.
He was one of the good guys. His death is a huge loss to all the people of Ireland, to his fellow priests in the Redemptorist community and to his family, especially his sisters Margaret and Maura, his Aunt Ita, his wider family circle and his many friends.
I first met Fr. Alec in the Cages of Long Kesh, where I was interned, in the mid 1970s. He and Father Des Wilson were pioneers of peace making in those difficult times. Both men were deeply committed to living the gospel message and to making it relevant to the particular circumstances in which they ministered. They developed dialogue with loyalists and facilitated meetings between us and some prominent people from loyalist paramilitarism. Both were tenacious peacemakers.
I met him again on Easter Sunday after my release in 1976, when at my request he and Fr. Des – who thankfully is still with us - intervened to negotiate an end to the inter-republican feuds in Belfast. Theysucceeded in establishing an arbitration and mediation process between the different republican organisations.
Fr. Alec had more freedom than most priests because he belonged to an order – the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, popularly known as the Redemptorists – which fully supported the work he was doing. The Redemptorist mission is to ‘preach the values and the blessings of the Christian Gospel to people everywhere but particularly to the poor, the marginalised and the downtrodden’.
The Sagart was ordained in 1957and was appointed to Clonard Monastery several years later. From 1969 and throughout the intervening years of conflict Fr. Reid was constantly involved in a number of special peace-making ministries. The objective of these was to give comfort and support to the people living at the coal-face of the violence; helping prisoners and their families; and promoting understanding and reconciliation between the people of Belfast. He was also Chaplain to and worked closely with the Traveller community in Belfast.
Another Clonard ministry was to foster dialogue and friendship between the separated Christians of Belfast, an enterprise he took especially to heart, working tirelessly to move the conflict off the streets and onto the conference table.
Fr. Alec was also a friend of the prisoners and part of the line of communication between them and the British Government during the first Hunger Strike in 1980. He actively encouraged initiatives in support of the H Block blanketmen and the Armagh women. It was Fr. Reid who suggested that we meet with Cardinal O Fiaich on the prison issue and it was Fr. Reid who persuaded the Cardinal to visit the republican political prisoners on the blanket protest in July 1978.
Afterward the Cardinal, then Archbishop, O Fiaich, condemned the conditions under which the prisoners were being held, and said: “Having spent the whole of Sunday in the prison, I was shocked at the inhuman conditions prevailing in H-Blocks 3,4 and 5 where over 300 prisoners were incarcerated. One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being. The nearest approach to it that I have seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people living in sewer pipes in the slums of Calcutta.”
The Cardinal informed the then British Secretary of State, Humphrey Atkins, of these meetings and tried to mediate a resolution of the prison protest. It failed. The British were determined to break the prisoners.
Fr. Reid was devastated by the commencement of the first hunger strike. He had lobbied ferociously for an end to the dispute. The stress of trying and failing to get a resolution of this issue took its toll and he took seriously ill. I used to visit Fr. Alex in Drogheda hospital. On one occasion Colette and I found him in a very distressed state as the health of the hunger strikers deteriorated. Paradoxically, while the plight of the prisoners and their families and the ongoing conflict continued to wear him down, he took great comfort from the messages of support that the blanket men had smuggled out to him.
Some of his friends arranged to send him to Rome where the Redemptorist main headquarters is. Fr. Alec enjoyed Rome; he delighted in wandering through the city and eventually finding his way back to the Redemptorist House at nightfall. One day, on May 13th 1981, 8 days after Bobby Sands died on Hunger Strike, Fr. Alec was in St. Peter's square, reflecting on events in Ireland, the hunger strike and how different this was to Belfast with its daily bombing attacks and intermittent gun battles. As he tried to get closer to where the Holy Father, John Paul II’s procession was passing an armed man dashed forward close to the Sagart and shot the Pope.
The Sagart, in a state of some understandable shock and concern for the Pope’s well being, made the mistake of recounting his experiences to friends back home. It was a story that was to be told and retold with suitable irreverence in typical black Belfast style for years after that.
It wasn’t until July of the following year that the Sagart was allowed to return to Ireland but on condition that he didn't come north. His superiors were afraid that his fragile health could be undermined if he was allowed to become re-involved in his previous activities.
When he eventually did we resumed our conversations about the conflict, its causes and how it might be ended. It was obvious that dialogue was the necessary first step. In the early 1980s we tried to commence a process of engagement with the Catholic Hierarchy, the SDLP, and the Irish and British governments. They were all rebuffed. The breakthrough came after Fr. Reid wrote a letter to John Hume on May 19 1986. John phoned the monastery the next day and he arrived at Clonard on May 21st.
Towards the end of 1987 we decided that John and I would begin party-to-party meetings. The Sagart formally wrote to both of us as ‘an interested third party’ inviting Sinn Féin and the SDLP to ‘explore whether there could be agreement on an overall nationalist strategy for justice and peace.’ He presented us with a paper entitled ‘A concrete proposal for an overall political strategy to establish justice and peace in Ireland.’
I brought the invitation to our Ard Chomhairle. It responded positively and John and I met on Monday January 11th 1988 for several hours. For the first time our meeting was publicised and there was an immediate and generally hostile response from the governments, the other political parties and sections of the media. Jump forward 25 years and it is the same sections of the media and in many cases the same journalists who are still busy peddling their anti-Sinn Féin agenda.
Fr. Reid never allowed any of it to distract him. He was tenacious in his pursuit of peace. He wrote copious letters to political leaders here and in Britain and engaged in countless meetings with politicians and government’s seeking to persuade them to start the process of talking. He saw good in everyone and lived the gospel message. His was the gospel of the streets.
He was there during the first hunger strike and became ill as a consequence of the stress. He was there during the battle of the funerals including the funerals of the IRA volunteers killed at Gibraltar. He was in Milltown Cemetery when the mourners were attacked. Three were killed and over 60 wounded. Several days later he administered the last rites to the two British soldiers killed at the subsequent funeral of one of the victims Caoimhin MacBradaigh.
Fr. Reid also helped broker talks between Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil and subsequently the Irish government and Sinn Féin. In 1999, at my request, he became involved in the ongoing efforts to locate the remains of those who had been killed and secretly buried by the IRA and others. After several years it became apparent that our initial hope that all of the remains would be located quickly was naive. He and I discussed this and consequently we put to the governments a proposal that experts in the recovery of remains, using high-tech equipment and archaeological methods should be employed.
Later in 2005 he was an independent witness, along with Rev Harold Good, to the IRA putting its arms beyond use and during this time he was also involved in trying to develop a peace process in the Basque country.
Today we brought him to his last resting place in the Redemptorist plot in Milltown cemetery. Earlier hundreds of his religious colleagues, political and community leaders and the people of west Belfast attended his funeral mass in Clonard.
The Sagart lived a full life. His contribution to peace in Ireland is immeasurable. There would not be a peace process at this time without his diligent doggedness and his refusal to give up. He remained through all these turbulent times a good and simple priest. He was forthright, funny and totally dedicated to upholding the dignity of human beings. He was an active proponent of equality, particularly of a woman’s right to equality.
He was also a proud Tipperary man and a hurling enthusiast. His last words to me were “Up Tipp”.
Go ndeanfaid Dia trocaire ar a n’anam dilse.