Ian Paisley’s revelation that a priest, alleged to have had links to the IRA, convinced him that republican weapons had been decommissioned is an “insult” to unionists, former DUP Assemblyman Paul Berry has said.
Dr Paisley had initially demanded to have his own witness present during the decommissioning process and, crucially, insisted on having photographs of the IRA’s arsenal being destroyed.
A dramatic speech in late 2004 spelt out stark terms: “Decommissioning must be credible and it must build the confidence of the unionist people. Sinn Fein’s leader Gerry Adams says we want to humiliate the IRA. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s a very noble thing.
“The IRA needs to be humiliated. And they need to wear their sackcloth and ashes, not in a back room but openly. And we have no apology to make for the stand we are taking.”
Until this week, Dr Paisley had never spelt out why he had dropped his demand for photographic evidence of decommissioning.
Speaking to Eamonn Mallie in Monday night’s BBC film, he said that a visit to his Stormont office by the two clergymen who witnessed decommissioning – Rev Harold Good and Fr Alec Reid – had been crucial in convincing him.
Referring to Fr Reid’s reassurance, Dr Paisley said: “He was very, very open with me. Of course, I had known of him when I went up to the Roman Catholic church that he belonged to and had debates there when they had their special times to meet Protestants.
“He was very open, very open. And I said ‘Well, if you are saying to me that you’re guaranteeing this, then I can at least say that I accept that and I will take it as you have said to me and of course that helps the situation’.”
The weight which Dr Paisley appears to have given to Fr Reid’s assurance has shocked many unionists, some of whom have in recent years questioned the claim that the IRA destroyed all its weapons as Semtex imported by the IRA from Libya decades ago has turned up in the hands of dissident republicans.
The priest – who had an important behind the scenes role in the peace process – had already been a controversial figure prior to his death last year, having in 2005 apologised after claiming that nationalists in Northern Ireland had been treated “like animals ... they were treated like the Nazis treated the Jews”.
Further insight into the late priest’s connections to the republican movement came at the end of last year when Catherine McCartney, sister of Robert McCartney who was battered to death by IRA members in 2005, described Fr Reid as a “Provie priest”.
Writing on the journalist Ed Moloney’s website, she recalled how the IRA attempted to intimidate her family and their supporters, eventually attacking Robert’s friend Geoff Commander. When he reported his attackers to the police and charges were brought, Ms McCartney alleged that Fr Reid put considerable pressure on the family to drop the charges.
“Alec Reid rang the Commander household and spoke with Sinead. He asked her to persuade Geoff to drop the charges against those charged,” she said. “He didn’t give any specific reason as to why the men should not face justice; the fate of the peace process didn’t depend on it, the interest of ‘peace’ would not be served by it, the ‘greater good’ was not at stake.”
She added: “This was how I came to know of Alec Reid. Alec Reid chose to stand with those responsible for the murder of an innocent man, the attackers of Geoff and the IRA in the intimidation and isolation of my family. By intervening on behalf of the IRA to have assault charges against Geoff’s IRA attackers dropped, Alec Reid intervened against the vulnerable, against right and against justice. When I am asked what I think of Alec Reid my simple response is, ‘Provie priest’. In Belfast everyone knows what that means.”
Former DUP Assemblyman Paul Berry, who left the party in acrimony in 2006 after allegations in a Sunday newspaper, said that he was shocked by what Dr Paisley had said about decommissioning.
Mr Berry, who was a member of the DUP negotiating team at the Leeds Castle talks in 2004, told the News Letter that neither at Leeds Castle nor in Jeffrey Donaldson’s office, where the post-Leeds party discussions were held, did he hear Fr Reid’s name mentioned as someone suitable to verify decommissioning.
“Alec Reid’s name was never mentioned because even at that time he was seen as a Provo priest. We not only needed to be convinced but were making clear to the Government that we needed to convince our community that there had been an act of decommissioning.”
Mr Berry, who is now an independent councillor in Armagh, said that the party had wanted former Presbyterian Moderator the Rev David McCaughey – someone who was respected by many victims of the IRA – as its independent witness.
“Internally, the party said ‘We would need someone like that who would be trusted by our electorate’. When I hear him [Dr Paisley] mention Alec Reid, to say that he went on the word of Alec Reid, that was a shock. And just a few months before, Paisley had been lambasting Harold Good.”
Mr Berry also said that Dr Paisley’s “sackcloth and ashes” speech had been “like a red rag to a bull to Robinson and co”.