A Roman Catholic priest who witnessed Irish Republican Army disarmament _ an act supposed to build Protestant support for Northern Ireland's peace process _ apologized Thursday for comparing the province's Protestant community to the Nazis.
The Rev. Alec Reid made his comments at a public meeting Wednesday night, when he initially angered Protestants by saying that the IRA did not target Protestants. More than 350 of the approximately 1,770 people killed by the IRA were Protestant civilians, while nearly 500 more were local Protestant members of the police and British army.
One particularly incensed audience member, Willie Frazer _ whose father, two uncles and several other relatives were killed by the IRA _ accused Reid's Catholic west Belfast monastery of lending support to the IRA.
"The reality is that the (Irish) nationalist community in Northern Ireland were treated almost like animals by the (Protestant) unionist community. They were not treated like human beings. It was like the Nazis' treatment of the Jews," Reid said.
As Frazer hurled more accusations at Reid, among them that the Catholic community had "butchered Protestants," Reid replied to Frazer: "You're in the same category as the Nazis as far as I'm concerned."
Later, Reid told the British Broadcasting Corp. that he was sorry, but explained that the hostility of some Protestant audience members had angered him. "I regret very much hurting the feelings of anyone, and I would like to apologize completely," he said.
Reid's fellow IRA disarmament witness, Methodist minister Harold Good, said he was shocked by the priest's comments, but accepted his apology.
Most Protestant political leaders did not, however, and said Reid's hostile comments had underlined their suspicions that the IRA did not completely disarm as both Reid and Good maintained.
The IRA allowed both clerics to witness its handover of weaponry to disarmament officials, but the process _ including the volume of weaponry involved, the manner of its destruction, and the locations of the handover _ remain secret.
"I am convinced that a lot of (IRA weapons) decommissioning did take place, but Father Reid has fundamentally undermined the very work he was part of," said Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. "How can the word of somebody using that sort of language be taken seriously?"
Britain's minister responsible for governing Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, also criticized the priest's judgment.
"Although Father Alec Reid has apparently apologized for those remarks, of course I condemn what he said," Hain told the House of Commons in London.
Reid has been a confidant of Sinn Fein party leader Gerry Adams for two decades, and claims to have special insight into the thinking of the IRA, whose campaign he also has harshly criticized.
It was the second time this year that a prominent Catholic figure compared the province's Protestants to Nazis, then apologized for doing so. Irish President Mary McAleese, a Belfast-born Catholic, in January compared anti-Catholic attitudes in Northern Ireland to anti-Semitism in many European countries.
Catholics have complained of discrimination since Northern Ireland was founded as a predominantly Protestant corner of the United Kingdom in 1921 before the overwhelmingly Catholic rest of Ireland won independence. In the late 1960s, police and the province's Protestant government of the time violently suppressed Catholic civil rights demonstrators campaigning for equal rights. Britain, which took direct control of the government in 1972, gradually addressed key Catholic complaints, AP reported. V.A.