'THE most generous thing I can say about Alec Reid," said Ian Paisley Junior on the BBC's Hearts and Minds on Thursday night, "is that I think he's lost it." Baby Doc then proceeded to lose it himself - refusing even to tut-tut when asked to comment on his colleague Sammy Wilson's statement at election time that those who voted for Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey were "sub-human animals".
The offending words - uttered in a Belfast Presbyterian church where Father Reid was seeking to convince Protestants that they could trust his word on decommissioning - were: "The nationalist community in Northern Ireland were treated almost like animals by the unionist community. They were not treated like human beings. They were treated like the Nazis treated the Jews." His face was hard: his anger full of righteousness.
"He must be senile," said a charitable unionist friend on Friday morning. Like most of the population of Northern Ireland, she was staggered not just by this outburst, but by Reid's (pre-recorded) performance on the same Hearts and Minds where he explained that he knew the IRA had nothing to do with the Northern Bank robbery, because they said they hadn't and they never lied. Asked if they were "whiter than white when it came to criminality", he assented. Criticism was reserved for Michael McDowell, whose contention that the IRA is morphing into a lightly-armed revolutionary group was "quite immoral". My unionist friend wanted to find an excuse for Father Reid, for, like me, she has never forgotten the solace he gave us in 1988. Like millions of others, we had watched with sick hearts the footage of the long-drawn-out murder of two young Royal Corps of Signals corporals. Having driven into a republican cortege at a time of hysteria and paranoia that had followed an earlier loyalist attack on an IRA funeral, they were beaten, stripped and shot. Then - as a website for a military memorial garden in Northern Ireland puts it - Reid "arrived on the scene. One of the most enduring pictures of the Troubles shows him kneeling beside the almost-naked bodies of the soldiers, his face distraught as he administered the last rites. That act of humanity has never been forgotten."
At that time, Reid was already a considerable player in the early secret days of the peace process - Tim Pat Coogan's "unsung hero" and the cerebral Martin Mansergh's "alpha and omega". From early in the Troubles, he had tried to save lives, whether by mediating in republican feuds, trying to resolve hunger strikes, or, in 1982, trying unsuccessfully to stop the IRA killing a kidnapped factory worker who was a part-timer in the Ulster Defence Regiment. So why is this paragon among peacemakers making such a comprehensive and destructive idiot of himself?
Well, when this Tipperaryman decided in 1950 to become a priest, he chose to joined the Redemptorists. Notoriously harsh 'fire and brimstone' preachers, they were seriously nationalist. In the mid-Sixties he moved north to Clonard Monastery, which lives on an interface separating militant republicans and loyalists: it's hardly surprising that he became closely identified with his flock and acquired a jaundiced view of Protestants.
Latterly, praised and feted, Reid has come into the public arena. A friend and trusted confidant of Gerry Adams for more than 20 years, he has become his ambassador to Spain, where he tries to persuade constitutional and militant Basque nationalists to unite. And, increasingly, he is one of his mouthpieces. Davy Adams (no relation), commented that Reid's statement in June that Irish political parties (by being critical of Sinn Fein) were a greater threat to peace than the IRA was "one of the most ludicrous pronouncements ever".
Yet Reid is physically and mentally vulnerable under pressure. Coogan records that among the "multiple stress-induced ailments that afflicted him" in the early Eighties, was complete blindness. So it was not kind of Adams to expose his friend (whom he calls the "Sagart") to long days watching weapons disposal and to intense pressure in front of cameras and interviewers.
Reid's exposure of both his prejudice and his gullibility has desperately embarrassed the republican high command. Of course many republicans of the MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever) persuasion equate unionists with Nazis. Were they not educated to shout "SS/RUC?" But it's not PC to say such things these days, and Reid has boobed. "His apology is irrelevant", many unionists have pointed out. "It's what he believes."
Yet we should not forget Reid's 1988 shining act of humanity. And maybe his insult to Jews and to unionists (whose community - unlike the IRA - was anti-Nazi) will act as a catalyst in forcing into honest dialogue those two tribes in Northern Ireland who detest each other.