Father Alec Reid, an appreciation by Tim Pat Coogan.
By the acid test; “Did his life enhance or detract from human happiness?” Father Alec Reid’s sojourn on this earth must be judged a spectacular success.
He was the initiator of the peace process and the most tireless worker for it.
But when this shy diffident Tipperary man first entered the maelstrom of Falls Road life in the early days of the Troubles he encountered scepticism and near dirision.
“He was preaching eeecuminism at Mass last Sunday!” a prominent Republican told me wonderingly. The man had been one of the group who had helped to prevent the monastery from being burnt down during the Orange onslaught of August 1969.
But Clonard has always been a red bricked oasis of Christian charity in the desert of Belfast Protestant/Catholic relationships and Father Alec, and, later, like minded colleagues like Father Gerry Reynolds, also a Southerner reached out to both Orange and Green.
Alec was torn between the demands of frantic parents seeking news of a son who had been “lifted” by the security forces, or taken away by the IRA, making peace between the various IRA factions, being called out to hospitals at all hours of the day and night and – preaching eeecuminism.
By 1980 the threat of the removal of special category status, in effect political status from the IRA in the H block prisons at Long Kesh, an old RAF airfield outside Belfast, was threatening to explode sending the north into far greater turmoil than anything hitherto witnessed.
With Fr. Reid’s help I undertook to write a book; ‘On the Blanket’ to call attention to the looming catastrophe. So many Catholics had been rounded up that scarcely a Nationalist family in the north would be unaffected. I had to write the book while holding down my job as editor of ‘The Irish Press’ and I found the emotional impact as well as the physical strain almost unnerving.
To this day I can still see the face of a woman Fr. Alec introduced me to, a Mrs Carney, one of her sons was in prison as an IRA man, another had been shot by the IRA as an informer having already been kneecapped. She lived a life of tidy church going desperation remembering the day she first discovered her dead son was in the IRA. He had always kissed the picture of the Sacred Heart before going out but one day she both realised that he had stopped doing this and that he had an indentation on his forehead which showed that he was wearing a Fianna cap.
Despite her entreaties he continued in the movement saying; ‘I have to do something to support them lads in the H blocks’. Such O’Caseyesque dramas were played out all over the six counties.
I finished the book in three months it took a somewhat similar period to recover from the effort but Alec Reid continued in the Maelstrom for the rest of his life.
Eventually, his health broke down. I visited him once in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital and found him lying on the outside of the bed fully clothed, his arms folded gazing blindly at the ceiling his sight and his energy sapped by diabetes. As I concluded my visit another long-term friend with whom he would one day change Irish history, entered the room, it was Gerry Adams and his wife Collette.
His superiors sent him abroad to recover and stationed him as far as they could from Belfast but he worked his way back engineering postings to various Redemptorist Houses, until he finally managed to springboard himself from Dundalk back to Belfast.
Here the death of a UDR man whom he had vainly tried to save, —- as he would later do in the world famous incident at Milltown Cemetery when he unsuccessfully attempted to rescue two British soldiers — finally decided him on making an effort at securing an overall peace settlement.
He fireproofed himself against the Church authorities by having the Redemptorist theologian Sean O’Riordan vet his plans and later secured the approval and support of Cardinal Thomas O’Fiaich. In fact the peace process might have begun earlier than it did had O’Fiaich not died suddenly on a Lourdes pilgrimage. The Cardinal had agreed to break the logjam by publicly meeting Gerry Adams.
Alec knew and trusted Adams whom he had met through the latter’s custom of attending eleven o’clock Mass in Clonard. Moreover his mother’s family, the Hanaways were both prominent Republicans and neighbours, and supporters of the monastery.
Adams was supportive of a strategy which shelved the prospect of a united Ireland and concentrated on power sharing between nationalists and unionists, each side to work towards their goals by democratic methods, independently of British influences.
They had to work in extreme secrecy, security authorities had placed Clonard under intensive electronic surveillance and there were people in the Republican family who would gladly have shot Adams had they known what he was doing but the pair persevered, sometimes holding their conversations in Adam’s kitchen or bathroom with the taps running to scramble bugs.
Eventually Alec approached John Hume to join the talks. Hume risked extreme censure from his party, the SDLP but willingly supported the initiative. Alec then approached me to get Charlie Haughey aboard as the leader of what was seen in the North as the largest Republican Party in the South.
It was by now 1986 and Haughey and I had fallen out because I had criticised him in the Irish Press for rejecting the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement.
However, Haughey proved surprisingly welcoming and ‘though he would not meet Adams he appointed the excellent Martin Mansergh as a go-between. He also accepted the peace strategy blueprint which Alec had drawn up in conjunction with Adams and studied it carefully. And after he became Taoiseach again the following year, he received myself and Alec at Kinsealy, where he tested Alec’s IRA knowledge by finding out from him just what had happened at Loughall where Jim Lynagh’s ASU (active service unit) had been wiped out by the SAS after surrendering.
There followed some years of activity without movement during which Alec never gave up hope talking on the ‘phone he employed a code which embodied the two loves of his life, the Holy Spirit and the GAA.
Speaking on the ‘phone he would describe progress, or lack of it by saying things like; “the Holy Spirit is in the Forwards.” If things were going badly He would be at Wing Back or even on the bench! Alec’s faith in the Holy Spirit was such that, traditionalist though he was, he even accommodated to the Church’s newer custom that the Holy Spirit might be a She.
The peace process, which had taken a markedly more constructive, upward momentum when Albert Reynolds became Taoiseach, took a further great leap forward after I introduced Alec “the Monk” as she described him, to Jean Kennedy Smith. Alec in turn used to refer to her in his coded conversations as an spéirbhean(the spirit woman of Irish Legend). The new American Ambassador was deeply impressed by him and she, and importantly her brother Senator Ted Kennedy knew that Alec was not merely a good man but a well-informed one and that Adams was sincere in his desire for peace.
Despite all the subsequent alarms and excursions the Good Friday Agreement was eventually born as Father Gerry Reynolds memorably put it “it was like a baby being born. There was blood, pain and torn tissue, but the baby survived and will grow strong.” Incredibly despite the toll which all the foregoing inflicted on Alec after 1998 he took up the cause of making peace between the Basques and the Spanish government and succeeded in making some progress in that most intractable of problems.
If the Irish Church is to survive it will be because of the work of Alec Reid and the men of Clonard Monastery.