In August 1994 I returned to live in Belfast after three very enjoyable years in Dublin. In those three years things had been violent and bloody in Northern Ireland. There was a period where murder and indeed multiple murder was a daily occurrence. I was advised at one point to not drive north as my southern car registration plates would make me a legitimate target for loyalist paramilitaries. As I had been intimidated and verbally abused a few times because of those Dublin plates I took the train for a while. I was to come back to a house with my new job as Presbyterian Dean of Residence at Queen’s University but the house had been caught up in a mortar attack so I took a flat in the city centre.
On my first Sunday I counted ten soldiers in the car park outside that flat. Friends who had been nervous to come over from Glasgow to play the Belfast Folk Festival had a saracen tank outside the venue and two armed policeman on the door. It wasn’t hopeful! Yet within days we had the IRA ceasefire and two months later the Combined Loyalist Military Command joined in too. This week we celebrate twenty years of living without being stopped and searched every time we drive into the city, where army on the streets is not the norm and where Belfast city is alive with restaurants, cafes, arts and festivals. My daughters know nothing of what it was like for their parents growing up. Whatever the fragility of our current political process there is great reason to celebrate these past twenty years.
As we celebrate I want to draw our attention to the role the Churches played in our grace time space. I am honoured to be the successor, as minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian, to Rev. Dr. Ken Newell who played his part alongside his friend Fr Gerry Reynolds from Clonard Monastery. These two men took a brave decision to become friends in a city where reaching out across the Protestant/Catholic divide could have its consequences. Many within Presbyterianism ridiculed and misrepresented Ken for years. I am sure there were more dangerous implications. They modelled a friendship that drew congregations and communities together. I have benefited from what they created. They have inspired me to follow their lead. I am grateful for their contributions.
They were inspired by perhaps a Churchman who might possibly be hailed as the very architect of the peace. Fr. Alec Reid, who sadly passed away late last year, was a courageous and audacious Redemptorist priest. As a priest in Clonard Monastery, just off the Falls Road, he had ministered in some torrid times of violence and murder. He knew it was wrong. In very simple terms he knew that Jesus wanted to put it right and so as a follower of Jesus he had no choice but to play his part. The idea to love neighbour and enemy and be blessed as a peacemaker were not nice ideas or verses in the Bible. For Fr. Alec it pushed him into places where he was prepared to put his very life on the line to live what he believed.
Six year before the Ceasefires in March 1988 Northern Ireland looked into the abyss. At a funeral of an IRA member shot dead by the British Army in Gibraltar a mad maverick loyalist called Michael Stone opened fire and threw grenades into the crowd of mourners. Fr. Alec was standing beside Gerry Adams, who was perhaps the target of Stone’s bullets. As angry mourners chased Stone, Fr. Reid felt they would kill him and told Adams he wanted to get down and stand between them. Adams told him he was mad. Whether he was mad or not wasn’t what concerned Fr Alec Reid. If following Jesus was mad then mad was what he had to be.
A few days later he was back in the funeral cortege of one of those whom Stone had killed. During this funeral, two members of the British army somehow found themselves in the midst of a tense crowd and when a gun appeared the crowd thought that another Stone incident was about to go down and dragged the soldiers from the car and murdered them. Fr. Reid tried to get between the angry crowd and the soldiers, was threatened with his own life but ended up in a back alley giving one of the dying men the kiss of life and last rites. It was another crazy act of spiritually motivated bravery. It was what Jesus would have done but only one follower that I know did.
In that moment when death reigned, Fr Alec Reid had in his hand a now blood covered letter from Sinn Fein that laid out their conditions for beginning peace talks. Gerry Adams had handed it to Fr. Alec at the funeral. Fr. Alec calmly returned to Clonard, replaced the blood stained envelope and drove to Derry to deliver it to SDLP leader John Hume. That was the moment that the peace process was birthed, literally in the midst of murder mayhem. The flicker of the candle that was Fr Alec Reid lit up Northern Ireland towards the bright new dawn of the cease fires twenty years ago this week.
Political peace has been our blessing for these two decades. Societal peace is still a long way off. Those of us who follow Jesus are still called to be involved in putting that which is wrong right. We need Fr. Alec’s imagination, courage and commitment to the words and ideals of Jesus. As we celebrate this twentieth anniversary it is Fr. Alec Reid that I thank God for and after I have given thanks it is his example that whispers, no screams, to me that I must contribute to the ongoing process.