Fr Alec Reid set up talks between Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and then nationalist SDLP leader John Hume and acted as a conduit between the republican movement and the British government.
The Tipperary native tried to save two British soldiers who were brutally beaten and shot dead by republicans in west Belfast during one of the nadirs of the 30-year conflict.
Inside his pocket was a bloodstained secret note from Mr Adams to Mr Hume, outlining the Sinn Féin leader’s position on a democratic resolution of the Troubles. At the time, talking to gunmen was anathema to mainstream public opinion.
The 1988 image of him kneeling over a soldier saying the last rites on a patch of wasteland summed up the compassion and courage exhibited throughout his dealings with statesmen and community leaders.
Senior Protestant clergyman and friend, the Rev Harold Good, said: “There is a no man’s land into which very few people are prepared to go and Fr Alec was one such person, prepared to go into that no man’s land.”
The priest was born in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, in 1931. He played hurling with the Tipperary minors before leaving home to join the Redemptorist Congregation of priests in Aug 1949. By 1957 he had been ordained in Cluain Mhuire, Co Galway.
The clergyman spent more than 40 years working at Clonard Monastery in west Belfast, developed a close relationship with Mr Adams and became a key player in the peace process.
Very sad to learn of the death of our dear friend Fr. Alex Reid. An extraordinary & humble Priest who made an immense contribution to Peace.— Martin McGuinness (@M_McGuinness_SF) November 22, 2013
On Mar 6, 1988, British special forces, the SAS, killed three unarmed IRA members — Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage, and Daniel McCann — who were planning a bomb attack in Gibraltar.
At their funerals 10 days later, loyalist gunman Michael Stone launched a gun and grenade attack in Milltown cemetery, west Belfast, killing three mourners and wounding more than 50 others.
Three days later, at a funeral for one of those killed by Stone, Corporals David Howes and Derek Wood were beaten and shot after driving into the cortege. They tried to escape but were surrounded by taxis, dragged from their vehicle, knifed, blud-geoned, and shot to death.
Fr Reid was at that funeral as go-between in secret talks between the nationalist leaders to collect information from one side and deliver it to the other.
Mr Hume would later earn a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, Mr Adams is lauded in many quarters for the risks he took, and Fr Reid was hailed for his behind-the-scenes role as well as his groundbreaking dialogue with loyalist paramilitaries.
Mr Adams said: “There would not be a peace process at this time without his diligent doggedness and his refusal to give up.”
Mr Hume added: “Fr Reid was a pillar of the peace process. Without his courage, determination, and utter selflessness, the road to peace in our region would have been much longer and much more difficult to traverse.”
More recently, Fr Reid tried to bring about an end to Eta’s violent independence campaign in the Basque region of Spain.
His close relationship with the republican leadership made him a natural choice to witness the decommissioning of IRA weapons in 2005, which led to Sinn Féin’s acceptance into a power-sharing devolved government at Stormont.
His fellow witness was Mr Good, who also recalled him sitting in houses talking to people from the loyalist community, a first for him and one of many firsts for the nationalist community he represented and shepherded to accommodation.
Mr Good said: “He had a wonderful capacity for building relationships and that was a key to almost everything that he did, his skill was in building relationships of a non-threatening and non-judgmental kind.
“He would appear to many people to be an innocent abroad but he was far from being anybody’s fool. He would trust people and they trusted him in return but he would not allow himself to be fooled.”
He said the priest’s bravery was exemplified by his humanity towards the two soldiers. “He thought that was the right thing to do, he was not thinking of who those people were and what they represented, he saw beyond that to young men who had found themselves in that situation,” Mr Good added.
“People are moved by compassion and when you see compassion there is a human quality there that goes beyond the rhetoric of conflict and violent struggle that we have had over that awful period of time.”
A memorable day with Fr Alec Reid in April when he was honoured by @ouireland. A gentle man. RIP pic.twitter.com/wA5XYVbwvG— Donna Traynor (@DonnaTraynorTV) November 22, 2013
Martin Mansergh, the Fianna Fáil government adviser during peace talks in the 1990s, dubbed Dr Reid “one of the best examples of Christian witness in recent decades”.
He facilitated talks involving Martin McGuinness and his aide Aidan McAteer at a Redemptorist monastery in Louth in 1992-93 as a ceasefire was sought. In between meetings, he carried messages from one party to the other.
Mr Mansergh said Fr Reid had the discreet but significant backing of Catholic primate Cardinal Tomas Ó Fiaich.
“We have lost someone for whom we all owe a debt of gratitude,” he said.
In 2005, Fr Reid compared the unionist community to Nazis for its past treatmentof Catholics. He later apologised, saying he had lost his temper.
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said: “He sometimes said things that upset Unionists, occasionally had to apologise for his comments, but I do not doubt that he was sincere in working to end the violence on our streets and managed to command the attention of key politicians and civic leaders at a time when Northern Ireland was rocking from a series of brutal atrocities.”
Fr Reid’s funeral will be held in west Belfast on Wednesday, Nov 27.
Fr Alec Reid will go down in history as a patriot and a true man of God. May he rest in peace.— Conall McDevitt (@ConallMcD) November 22, 2013
RIP Fr Alec Reid. Great compassion and humanity trying to save those soldiers in 88 and throughout peace process.— Donal O'Malley (@DonOMalley) November 22, 2013