Fr Alec Reid, 82, acted as a clandestine go-between ferrying messages to and from republicans and the British and Irish governments in the earliest stages of the peace process in the 1980s.
Years later, with paramilitary ceasefires delivered and the 1998 Good Friday peace accord signed, he acted as an independent witness to the decommissioning of the IRA’s arsenal of weapons.
During the Troubles, his image was seared into the public conscious when he was pictured kneeling over the bloodied corpse of one of two British soldiers he performed the last rites on after they were beaten and murdered by a republican mob in west Belfast.
The Redemptorist order of Catholic priests, of which the Co Tipperary-born cleric was a member, announced that he died peacefully in hospital in Dublin at 6.40am.
Irish President Michael D Higgins led tributes to the cleric, who in his later years made Dublin home. “Fr Reid will perhaps best be remembered for the courageous part he played in identifying and nurturing the early seeds of an inclusive peace process,” he said.
“Fr Reid’s role as a channel for peace laid the ground for the achievement of the IRA ceasefire and created the political space for the multi-party talks that ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement. While he spent the last few years of his life in Dublin, Fr Reid would have been gratified by the positive transformation that is under way throughout Northern Ireland, and especially in the Belfast that he loved so well.”
The cleric had a long association with Clonard church in west Belfast and his funeral will be held there on Wednesday
“He will be especially remembered for his work in the Northern Ireland peace process,” the Redemptorist order said.
Fr Reid was a key confidante of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and the republican leader trusted him to ferry messages to and from the then Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader John Hume and contacts in the British and Irish governments.
Mr Adams described the cleric’s former base in Clonard as “the cradle of the peace process”.