Jack Weir: Presbyterian leader who talked peace with the IRA

Author Rev Dr Bill Addley (left) and Presbyterian Moderator  Very Rev Dr Ian McNie at the launch of the Jack Weir biography
Author Rev Dr Bill Addley (left) and Presbyterian Moderator Very Rev Dr Ian McNie at the launch of the Jack Weir biography

A church leader who is credited with being an early architect of the peace process is being celebrated in a new biography.

Former Presbyterian Moderator Dr Jack Weir, who died in 2000 aged 81, never sought controversy but was often accompanied by it throughout his clerical career.

Jack Weir: Missionary, Administrator and Peacemaker has been written by the Rev Bill Addley and was launched on Wednesday at the Presbyterian Assembly buildings in Belfast.

Dr Weir was one of the group of Protestant churchmen who met with leaders of the IRA at Feakle in Co Clare in December 1974.

At the time the talks were criticised by many unionists. Ian Paisley, who would later work closely with Martin McGuinness as First and Deputy First Minister, slammed the group as “the Fickle Feakle clergy”.

The churches involved stressed that the men had been acting on their own, while the clergy – who liaised with government – exchanged a series of proposals and counter-proposals with the IRA on what would be required to secure a peace settlement.

A series of ceasefires followed but by Easter the IRA apparently felt they were not making progress and restarted their campaign of terror.

Nearly 20 years later, on his own initiative, Dr Weir, with Dr Godfrey Brown, broke the unionist taboo against engaging with Sinn Fein, and entered a series of talks with Gerry Adams.

In another initiative he controversially led a Presbyterian Church delegation to meet Pope John Paul in the Republic of Ireland in 1979.

Two years later he led a tour of US cities to counter the one-sided view of events being given by republicans.

Rev Addley said it is rare to find in one person the contrasting characteristics of a church administrator, missionary bridge-builder, bridge-crosser and peacemaker.

“Such a person was that giant of Irish Presbyterianism, Jack Weir.

“Even as Clerk of the General Assembly and General Secretary of the largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland he was not afraid to sail in stormy waters, most notably during the heated Assembly debates on the Presbyterian Church’s membership of the World Council of Churches.”

After his death Presbyterian minister Sam Hutchinson said the peace process had been a “fitting memorial” to him.

“The present peace process stems from the seed he sowed in earlier years when he met paramilitary leaders,” he said.

The publication can be obtained from the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland at 26 College Green, Belfast, BT7 1LN or via www.presbyterianhistoryireland.org.