Fr. Alec Reid and the Irish peace process

article-2294202-18B2CE61000005DC-139_640x377By Kevin Rafter (Dublin City University) 

Some years ago when writing a biography of Martin Mansergh – then a backroom political adviser – I had the opportunity to interview Fr Alec Reid, the Redemptorist priest who was a central player in the Irish peace process, and whose funeral took place this week.

After a number of conversations Reid gave me two unpublished papers written by members of the Redemptorist Peace Ministry in 1988 and 1989, at key moments when confidential contacts were being established between constitutional nationalist politicians and members of the republican movement. Individual members of the Redemptorist Order based at the Clonard Monastery in Belfast, had been involved in a dialogue with republican leaders since 1969. They acted as mediators at time of internecine disputes and fulfilled important roles in prison protests such as the 1981 hunger strikes.

Reid’s role in the Northern Ireland peace process can be traced back to the start of the Troubles. As a member of the Redemptorist Order, the priest saw himself as a mediator, and he was arguably the key person in establishing peace process contacts. When the IRA announced its first ceasefire in August 1994, Albert Reynolds acknowledged this role: “That priest was absolutely vital in trying to being about peace. He never gave up in going back and forth. He was at all times absolutely reliable in conveying what the various views were.” [The Guardian, 12 September 1998]

Reid’s belief was that the Catholic Church had a responsibility wider than just condemnation of the IRA. From his earliest contacts with senior republicans in Belfast – at a time when church condemnation of their actions was vocally strongest – Reid identified a constituency prepared to actively examine the feasibility of a political alternative to the military campaign.

In an interview in October 2002 in Dublin, Reid told me: “One of the things I discovered very quickly was that the people who most wanted peace were the IRA. Who wants to live that kind of life, always on the run? These were young men in their early twenties with wives and young children caught up in nightmare stuff. They wanted some way of getting out of that honourably.”

The significant material in Reid’s 1989 document concerns the contemporaneous account given of the state of the nascent peace process and the active role being played by the Redemptorist Order. The document clearly outlines the origins of what became known as the Northern Ireland peace process. This document was prepared against “a state of impasse” in the dialogue between republican leaders and the Redemptorists represented by Reid. The breakthrough – separate and secret – face-to-face contacts with John Hume and Martin Mansergh had ended the previous year without success although a dialogue of sorts was being maintained through Reid. The Redemptorists noted that they had been involved in –

“a long process of dialogue with the leadership of the Sinn Fein Party during which formulas and proposals aimed at defining and implementing ‘a political alternative to the armed struggle’ were considered and discussed in terms of the democratic principles that must govern a just resolution to the conflict.” [Redemptorist Peace Ministry, 1989]

The 1989 document pointed towards progress in the discussions with the republican leadership.

“We managed to define ‘a democratic over-all political and diplomatic strategy for justice, peace and reconciliation’ which, in terms, at least, of its broad thrust, the Sinn Fein leadership were prepared to recommend as a credible, political ‘alternative’ to the armed struggle of the I.R.A. provided they were satisfied before they recommended it that, if the I.R.A. were to accept it as such, it would, in fact be implemented by the Irish Government and other relevant parties on the nationalist side of the conflict.” [Redemptorist Peace Ministry, 1989]

Despite the apparent progress achieved in the Redemptorists dialogue with the republican leadership a major difficulty to movement remained. The Republican Movement wanted talks without an end to the IRA campaign. However, the Irish government was unwilling to discuss – what the RPM described as “proposals for peace” until “the IRA ends that campaign or, at least calls a cease-fire.”

The latter distinction is highly significant in light of the controversy which developed over the absence of the word ‘permanent’ from the August 1994 IRA ceasefire statement. It would appear that in 1989 consideration of a ‘ceasefire’ by the Republican Movement was not in terms of a permanent end to violence but, rather, as a prelude to political discussion with the option of a return to conflict left open.

Impatience is evident in the 1989 document.

“This impasse, we believe, is holding up the opportunity of a real break-through on the road to a just and lasting peace … We are convinced, from our knowledge of the possibilities, that it could be satisfactorily and even quickly resolved by means of a special pastoral intervention…”[Redemptorist Peace Ministry, 1989]

The Redemptorists ultimately proposed a ‘communication sanctuary’ under their auspices, and in this way, the Order – primarily through Fr Alec Reid – were active participants in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

Rafter, Kevin 2003. Priests and Peace: The role of Redemptorist Order in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Etudes Irlandaises, Spring/Autumn 28(1): 159-176.

Rafter, Kevin 2002. Martin Mansergh: A Biography Dublin: New Island.

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