24 March 2006

The Irish priest who brought Eta killers to peace

Times Online

By David Sharrock and Graham Keeley in Barcelona
24 March 2006

JUST before the IRA hunger strike in 1981 Republican prisoners in the Maze nicknamed Alec Reid “Behind the Scenes” because he constantly assured them that “things are going on behind the scenes” and everything would be all right.

He was wrong. Ten men starved themselves to death and Father Reid, blaming himself, suffered a nervous breakdown.

But in recent years the 74-year-old Redemptorist priest from Tipperary has more than earned the sobriquet, playing a key role in persuading two of Europe’s most ruthless terrorist groups to abandon the gun and embrace politics.

The Basque separatist group, Eta, that will today begin a ceasefire it promises is permanent, having accepted the message brought from Ireland by the priest who laboured for more than a decade to convince Gerry Adams that the only solution to conflict lay in political negotiations.

Speaking from Bilbao, the Basque commercial capital, Father Reid was reluctant to take credit, but acknowledged he had “been here almost continuously for the past four years or so”, preaching the lessons of Northern Ireland. He had been “explaining especially that the only way you can solve such conflicts is through dialogue between all participants.

“There are no military solutions and we would say that the first thing you have to do is to take the violence away from the streets. You can’t solve it while it is on the streets. You have to bring it to the conference table.”

Self-congratulation is not the style of a man who, in spite of his sometimes controversial empathy with the Irish Republican movement, has demonstrated on many occasions the humanity at the core of his Christian mission to end violence.

When, in 1987, he delivered the last rites to two Signals corporals murdered by the IRA after they accidentally drove into a Republican funeral, the image of his stooping frame bent over their bodies went around the world.

A shy man, usually dressed in a black leather bomber jacket and jeans, Father Reid has been described as the inspiration of the Irish peace process.

The author Ed Moloney, an astute observer of the Provisionals for more than 30 years, credits him with having “initiated, devised and nurtured” the IRA away from the cycle of killing and down the road that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Fr Reid’s Basque mission began four years later when priests there invited him over in the hope that he could help to end their conflict as well.

A meeting in 2003 with the widow of a journalist murdered by Eta was a turning point. “She told me that every day when she wakes up and realises her husband is dead she does not want to go on living,” he told The Times yesterday. “At that moment I realised that we must act here immediately. As we said in Ireland, every second could cost another life.”

It was an encounter that echoed his decision to approach Gerry Adams in 1982 and plead with the Republican leader to intervene on behalf of the family of a British soldier who had been kidnapped by the IRA in South Armagh.

The soldier was subsequently murdered after being tortured, but the dialogue between the two men continued, eventually transforming itself into what became the peace process.

Father Reid has spent the past three years talking to all sides in the Basque country. Using the Bishop of Bilbao’s official residence as a base, he has met Eta leaders across the Pyrennean border in the French Basque country, as well as their political representatives in Batasuna and a range of civic and community leaders.

His inability to speak Spanish or Euskera, the Basque language, was never a handicap: those who met him were immediately impressed with his determination to succeed.

“I have known that the leadership of Eta wanted peace for the past three years but their problem has been convincing their supporters, as was the case with the IRA,” he said.

“People will not like me saying this, but I have a lot of respect for the leadership of Eta as well as the IRA. It is made up of some very intelligent people.”

In fact he has said far worse. Last October he created a furore when he lost his temper with a loyalist during a public debate and accused Northern Ireland Unionists of having treated Catholics as the Nazis treated the Jews.

When the last Eta ceasefire broke down in the late 1990s he told a Basque journalist he believed that the Spanish Government was “the real terrorists” because of its refusal to start a process of open dialogue.

And he has angered politicians on both sides of the Irish border with his ready acceptance of the Provisional IRA’s denial that it carried out the £26.5 million Northern Bank raid in December 2004.

Some mainstream Spanish and Basque politicians have privately voiced their occasional irritation with the priest. But his moral authority and track record has proved its worth with Eta, which tends to regard the IRA as a big brother.

Fr Reid was witness, along with a Protestant clergyman, to the decommissioning of the IRA arsenal last October. It is highly possible that he may soon find himself taking on a similar role in the Basque country. “This is the end of the physical-force tradition in Basque politics,” he said. “It’s the beginning of a whole new era.”

HELPING HANDS

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