Reid, Alec (Alexander) (1931–2013), priest and peacemaker, was born at Leonard's Corner nursing home, South Circular Road, Dublin, on 5 August 1931, the eldest of two sons and two daughters of David Reid, a carpenter, and his wife Mary (née Flannery), a member of Cumann na mBan with strong republican views. After his father died when Alec was six, his mother moved to her native Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, marrying her sister's widower Jack Glennon. Educated at St Mary's Boys' National School and the Christian Brothers' secondary school, Nenagh, he considered himself a Tipperaryman and played hurling with Nenagh's Éire Óg club. In 1948 he led Nenagh CBS hurling team to victory in the Dr Croke Cup, and in 1949 represented Tipperary in inter-county minor hurling.
In August 1949 Reid joined the Redemptorist Order in Dundalk and undertook his novitiate at their student house in Cluain Mhuire, Galway, taking an honours degree in history, English and philosophy at UCG. He was professed on 8 September 1950 and ordained in Galway on 22 September 1957. After completing pastoral studies (1959), undertaking a course at the Catholic Communications Institute in Booterstown, Co. Dublin, and brief periods in Limerick, Galway and Dundalk, in 1961 Reid was posted to Clonard Monastery in north Belfast, where he spent most of his priestly life.
In the 1960s his ministry centred on editing the Redemptorist Record magazine (later Reality), on mission to non-catholics, giving tours of Clonard and correspondence courses to potential converts from protestantism. The fundamentalist protestant Ian Paisley (qv) regularly attended his events to challenge the catholic position. Reid's evangelising mission was abandoned after 1969 because of the political situation and new trends in inter-church relations; with other Clonard Redemptorists, Reid became strongly committed to encountering other Christian traditions. He was also chaplain to the travelling community (working with a Legion of Mary praesidium), founding their first Belfast school, and dealing with officialdom on travellers' behalf. Identifying with the devotional working-class catholicism associated with Clonard, he was for forty years spiritual director for pilgrimages from Belfast to the Marian shrine in Knock, Co. Mayo. Into the 1980s he travelled Ireland preaching parish missions. These contacts led him to believe that women's role in the church should be extended.
Reid was shocked by the riots of August 1969 during which Clonard was attacked by loyalist crowds while catholics defended it: a 'peace wall' formed near Clonard to separate the two communities. Throughout the Northern Ireland Troubles (1969–94) the patchwork of catholic and protestant districts in north Belfast witnessed vicious conflict and killings of civilians between security forces and the republican community, paramilitaries on both sides, and rival paramilitaries in the same community.
Along with a secular priest, Fr Des Wilson, he mediated feuds between republican organisations, gradually establishing trust. Reid adopted jeans and leather jackets on the streets to put interlocutors at ease. From 1975 he developed a personal friendship with the Provisional republican activist Gerry Adams, whose family had strong links to Clonard. Unsure how loyalists would react to a habited priest, he crossed the peace line to the Shankill Road, befriending protestant residents and becoming accepted as a well-intentioned mediator. He later spoke of loyalist paramilitaires Gusty Spence (qv) and Ray Smallwoods (qv) as personal friends and was upset with the IRA when Smallwoods was assassinated only a few weeks before the IRA ceasefire. Although he avoided media interviews, he sometimes addressed Clonard Redemptorists on peacekeeping but only in general principles distilled from his experiences.
Following the introduction of internment in August 1972, he a undertook a prison ministry, becoming a regular visitor to the Maze prison. Accused of collusion in the escape of an IRA inmate (he denied this) and suspected of carrying messages between prisoners and the republican leadership, he was strip-searched twice while visiting the Maze; priests were normally exempted from this humiliation. He wrote to government officials accusing prison staff of mistreating republican prisoners and worked closely with Archbishop (later Cardinal) Tomas Ó Fiaich (qv) in protesting against prison conditions. Reid's attempts to persuade republican prisoners not to embark on the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes led them to nickname him 'behind the scenes' for assuring them a settlement was being negotiated. In 1981 Reid suffered physical and mental breakdown from stress and diabetes. His superiors sent him to Rome before allowing him to return to Belfast on condition that he safeguard his health by desisting from his prison ministry.
Instead, renewed contact with Adams led to his engagement with a broader peace strategy. Despite calling himself a pacifist and constitutional nationalist (he believed the 1916 rising was a mistake), Reid remained fundamentally a republican, and by the late 1980s to early 1990s he was prolifically writing papers, with a particular emphasis on the concept of self-determination. He hoped to persuade the IRA to end its armed campaign by establishing what he called 'a democratic nationalist consensus' and what unionists called a 'pan-nationalist front' – an alliance of the Irish government, SDLP and Sinn Féin to secure an intercommunal settlement involving due recognition of nationalist aspirations and open to evolution towards an united Ireland. The church would use its moral authority by vouching for the bona fides of the negotiators. (This contrasted with the view that Sinn Féin–IRA must be isolated and defeated as part of a broader settlement between centrists marginalising the extremes.) At the core of the negotiations was the principle that in return for power-sharing and British neutrality on the future of Northern Ireland, nationalists and republicans would accept that reunification required consent. This view, formulated by Reid (who as a trained philosopher and teacher of English understood precision), would have caused disquiet to many republicans.
His dilemma was that much of his negotiating authority came from the church, but elements of church leadership feared he might compromise it. He safeguarded his position by consulting the Redemptorist theologian Fr Seán O'Riordan and obtaining the support of Cardinal Ó Fiaich. He also recruited a circle of advisers and supporters, including lawyer and future Irish president Mary McAleese and Irish News proprietor Jim Fitzpatrick. During negotiations he said he represented the next person to be killed or injured.
In 1986 he opened channels between Adams and the British government and between Adams and the Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey (qv). Soon after Haughey became taoiseach in early 1987, Reid arranged low level discussions between envoys of Adams and Haughey at the Dundalk Redemptorist monastery. Haughey refused to meet Adams face-to-face so the SDLP leader John Hume was approached instead. After further meetings between Reid and Hume, secret talks between Hume and Adams took place at intervals over January–September 1988, beginning at Clonard on 11 January.
On 6 March 1988 Reid attended the funeral of one of three people killed by loyalist paramilitary Michael Stone at the funeral of IRA members shot by British troops in Gibraltar. A car driven by two British soldiers in civilian dress interrupted the cortege; the soldiers were beaten, stripped and taken to waste ground. He tried to protect the soldiers but was threatened and pulled away before they were shot. Reid unsuccessfully gave artificial respiration and administered the last rites; as a result the envelope he happened to be carrying containing the latest republican peace proposals became stained with blood. A photograph of a dejected Reid, blood on his face, kneeling beside a soldier's body, became one of the defining images of the Troubles. He subsequently wrote to the soldiers' families, praising the deceased men for not firing into the crowd.
The Hume–Adams dialogue initiated a peace process which developed further after the departure of Margaret Thatcher as British prime minister in November 1990 and the replacement of Haughey by the less compromised Albert Reynolds (qv) in February 1992. From the autumn of 1992, direct discussions were resumed between an envoy of Albert Reynolds and Martin McGuinness in Dundalk, Reid was present throughout. The contacts between Reid, Adams and Hume did not become public knowledge until April 1993; the ensuing storm of criticism receded after IRA and loyalist ceasefires in August–September 1994. Once inter-party talks began, Reid's role was less significant, though he made extensive submissions explaining Sinn Féin–IRA reluctance to agree to arms decommissioning, especially after the temporary breakdown of the IRA ceasefire in February 1996.
After the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, his role became more widely known and he was interviewed and profiled on radio and television. He received numerous awards: including honorary degrees from NUIG, UU and QUB; a 2008 civic reception in Nenagh; the 1994 Tipperary Peace Prize – jointly with Reverend Roy Magee and Dr Martin Mansergh; and the 2005 Gandhi International Peace Award with Reverend Harold Good. Asked to advise on conflicts elsewhere, he intervened from 2003 in the conflict in the Basque country, seeking a ceasefire by the Basque nationalist paramilitary group ETA in return for greater Basque autonomy. (He is interviewed in the 2003 documentary directed by Julio Medem, The Basque ball: skin against stone). He allegedly influenced ETA's 2006 ceasefire. Critics complained Reid was unduly sympathetic to Basque nationalism. He also spent time in Sri Lanka after the 2002 ceasefire was brokered between the government and Tamil Tigers.
In October 2005 Reid, with methodist minister Reverend Harold Good, was an official witness to the decommissioning of the IRA's weaponry. Reid and Good subsequently met unionist politicians to explain what they had seen, with Reid appealing to Paisley on the basis of acquaintance going back to early contacts in Clonard. (Paisley's allies subsequently denied personal trust in Reid had motivated Paisley's acceptance of decommissioning.)
On October 2005 Reid and Good addressed a meeting at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, south Belfast, at which loyalist victims' campaigner William Frazer accused 'butchering priests' from Clonard of complicity with IRA murderers. Reid lost his temper and claimed the Stormont government had treated nationalists 'as the Nazis treated the Jews'. Even sympathetic commentators said discrimination under Stormont was utterly incommensurable with Nazi genocide; he subsequently apologised.
His relationship with the republican leadership provoked controversy and some republicans discontented with the peace process claimed Reid's flattery lured Adams away from principle; others saw Adams manipulating a naive, hero-worshipping Reid (who once called Adams 'one of the most capable politicians in Europe … a man sent by God … part of God's providence for Ireland' (Sunday Independent, 1 Dec. 2013)). In 2014 relatives of Robert McCartney, a man killed on 31 January 2005 in an altercation involving senior IRA members, described Reid as a 'Provo priest' and alleged he had persuaded the family of a friend injured by alleged IRA members to withdraw a complaint to the police and pursue 'community restorative justice', which turned out to be supervised by the IRA man allegedly responsible for McCartney's death. This probably reflected naivete rather than complicity, since in other respects Reid could be a thorn in the republican side. From 1999 one of his principal ministries was to the families of the 'disappeared' (killed – mostly by the IRA – and their bodies concealed). He gave the families whatever information he could glean. Despite an unspoken republican boycott, in November 2003 he attended the funeral of Jean McConville (qv) whose remains had been discovered thirty-one years after she had been killed by the IRA.
In 2005 Fr Alec Reid CSSR retired to the Redemptorist community in Rathgar, Dublin. On his eightieth birthday he became critically ill, suffering from renal failure, and thereafter spent long periods in hospital. He died of pancreatic cancer in Queen of Peace nursing home, Rathgar, on 22 November 2013. He was buried in the Redemptorist plot in Milltown Cemetery, Belfast, and commemorated by a mural in Divis Street (west Belfast), an intercounty GAA football match and a memorial room at St Joseph's CBS Nenagh.
A number of Reid's negotiating documents, reminiscences and reflections on peacemaking are collected in Martin McKeever's One man, One god: the peace ministry of Fr Alec Reid CSsR (Redemptorist Communications, 2017); it also contains a number of tributes originally published in a supplement to Reality, Jan./Feb. 2014. Taped interviews of Reid by his Redemptorist provincial, intended as an official account of his experiences, are held by the archive of the Irish Redemptorist Province; they are quoted by McKeever but are not currently open to researchers (as of 2019). Reid defined the central lessons of his conflict resolution experiences as 'we shall succeed by the grace of God, but only by the grace of God' and 'in order to know what is happening, you have to go to the barricades' (Nenagh Guardian, 30 Nov. 2013).