14 Days traced a series of events in March 1988, beginning with the killing of the Gibraltar Three, including loyalist Michael Stone’s attack on their funeral, and culminating with the killings of two plain-clothed British soldiers after they drove into a funeral cortege in West Belfast.
But the thread that wove the programme together was the role of Fr Alec Reid of Clonard Monastery in West Belfast.
The programme foregrounded Fr Reid’s personal involvement over the course of the 14 days, including his on-going role in secret, behind-the scenes peace negotiations – and his remarkable actions as he attempted to save the soldiers from certain death.
Prof John Brewer has already reviewed the programme on Eamonn Mallie’s blog, providing an insightful perspective on the courage and independent action of Christian peacemakers like Fr Reid – who were more often than not left without support from the “institutional” churches.
But for the day that’s in it, I’m drawn back to the segment of the programme that featured the iconic photographs of Fr Reid as he knelt to administer the last rites to the dying soldiers.
(Begin watching the youtube clip at around the 35.40 mark to see Fr Reid’s descriptions of the events of that day and others’ responses to his actions.)
As Rev Ken Newell, the now-retired minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian, says (around the 46.45 mark):
“I saw in the photograph Alec himself looking straight into the camera, and I just saw a man of compassion, a man of prayer, a man of faith. It’s an astonishing picture because one of the soldiers was lying semi-naked in the shape of a cross, and his body was blood-splattered. And in that I saw an amazing link with the crucifixion of Christ.”
Watching Fr Reid’s descriptions of the events, it seemed me that the ordeal of the day has seared itself in his memory. He spoke of his sense of failure about being unable to save the men and asked himself if there was anything more that he could have done.
I couldn’t help but think that most people would have simply walked away – which, as Eamonn Mallie says emphatically during the programme – Fr Reid did not. Rather, Mallie says, Fr Reid ‘kept the faith.’
While Fr Reid was generally composed speaking about what happened, he at times sighed or put his head in his hands, still showing the strain. A similar passion was evident in the voice of Fr Gerry Reynolds, another priest from Clonard, who described Fr Reid as coming back from the funeral ‘traumatized.’ Like Rev Newell, Fr Reynolds was moved by the photograph of Fr Reid:
I think the photograph is an image of an aspect of the mission of the church. And also it was an image of the Beatitudes. … that Jesus speaks about. Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the pure in heart, they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, they will be called children of God. Those Beatitudes are in a way the weapons of the peacemaker, who is following the way of Christ. It’s not an armoury, it’s not a weaponry. But it’s a quality of soul and character and mind and heart that enables one who is [in] for the long haul of helping to bring people together in peace and justice.
The story of Fr Reid’s actions on that day demonstrates that there was a faint glimmer of hope in one of Northern Ireland’s darkest hours.
Today’s Good Friday is also in a way the 15th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (10 April 1998 was the actual date), the political settlement that provided hope that Northern Ireland would begin moving out of the darkness of violence into a more peaceful future. But as Fr Reynolds’ words remind us, peacemaking is a “long haul” and we are not there yet.
Can Fr Reid’s story shock us out of our complacency and inspire us to ask ourselves, as people living in a still divided society, what are we doing to “keep the faith” this Good Friday?