The BBC1 Northern Ireland documentary 14 Days, broadcast in Northern Ireland on 11th March, which deserves to be on national television, was a thoughtful documentary on the signal contribution of Fr Alec Reid. Eamonn Mallie, one of the people responsible for promoting the programme, is to be congratulated for giving Reid this honour.
First was Reid’s efforts in de-escalating the emotional impact of those 14 days (which began in March 1988 with the killing of the Gibraltar Three and ending with the killing of two plain-clothed British soldiers); second was his role in the wider peace process. My wife, born and reared in Northern Ireland, left the room when the scenes were replayed once more of the two soldiers being ripped from their unmarked car.
Later I told her she had missed the main point. The point was that while Father Reid administered the last rites to the soldiers, in his pocket, battered and blood stained, was the first draft of the eventual blueprint that evolved later into the Downing Street Declaration and thence the Belfast Agreement.
I am certain that what peaceful future Northern Ireland has is down in no small measure to the courageous individuals like Father Reid in the churches who brought paramilitaries, politicians, civil society and others together in sacred spaces.They were not all Catholic clerics. Many were Protestants. We glimpsed in 14 Days the equally seismic role of clergy like Harold Good, Ken Newell and others, working alongside or in parallel to Father Reid.
But there was one thing we didn’t get from this otherwise excellent programme. The Catholic and Protestant clergy more or less acted on their own authority, outside the conservative, cautious institutional church. They were mavericks, independents, easily left out on a limb when the secret back-channel dialogue they were facilitating became public and the institutional church disowned them.
Father Reid was pilloried by the Catholic Church – as was Ken Newell by some of his fellow Presbyterians. Only the Methodist Church gave its peacemakers something approaching official backing. And that is why Father Reid paid such an emotional price for his compassionate commitment to peacemaking.
We had snatches in the programme, from Father Reid’s pained looks, of just what a price he paid for his courage – and the institutional church is partly to blame for not giving him more support at the time.
Why didn’t the institutional church support the compassion of people like Newell, Reid and Good? A lot has to do with their conservatism, internal disagreements, agreement around only a minimum consensus to criticise the violence, and a fear and unwillingness both to criticise the state and to been seen to support violence.
Several years ago, along with my colleagues Dr Francis Teeney and Dr Gareth Higgins, we set about trying to unravel the role some of the above individuals played in the peace process. We interviewed (on the record) many leading church and political figures. Imagine our astonishment when the late Cardinal Daly told us that he knew nothing about what Father Reid was up to and he never tried to find out either.
His reason was that he did not want the IRA to be seen as the armed wing of the Catholic Church and getting involved in the Clonard initiative would send out the wrong signal. Furthermore we discovered that Father Reid was writing drafts of the Downing Street Declaration and future templates of the Framework Document and Good Friday Agreement well in advance of their publication.
He would share these drafts with Bishop Edward Daly (we were privileged to actually see copies of these). While the Institutional church did not help Father Reid some individuals within did provide him with friendship and cover – Bishop Edward Daly being one of them. The latter also allowed his home to be used for secret meetings between the British Intelligence and Republicans.
John Hume and Mark Durkan also had very close ties with Reid and Daly.
Father Reid’s involvement in making peace goes deeper than we can even imagine. Albert Reynolds told us (on the record) that he frequently had visits from him especially in the early hours of the morning – on one occasion calling at 2.00am to get a visa for Gerry Adams to visit America.
The role of Reid, Good, Newell and Daly cannot be underestimated and while the programme mostly centred on Alec Reid no less were the efforts of the Protestant clergy. Remember they could have been removed by their congregations if it was discovered they were holding talks with Republicans. The Reverend David Armstrong was removed and exiled for wishing the local parish priest a happy Christmas – imagine the repercussions for more serious engagements.
The institutional churches did not perform with honour in trying to establish peace and relegated themselves to burying the dead and comforting the widows. The job of getting their hands dirty was left to a select brave few and it is appropriate to echo that never before was so much owed by so many to so few.The rest really did let us down for a variety of reasons, church structures, fear of congregations, political timing and a failure to understand the real meaning of Gospel teaching – especially “Blessed are the peacemakers”.
If you want to know why the institutional church wouldn’t – and couldn’t – you may wish to read Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland, written by John Brewer, Francis Teeney and Gareth Higgins and published in 2011 by Oxford University Press. It places the themes of the programme in an academic context – not as visual or grabbing as film clips, I admit, but as informative.