With handshakes, smiles and four civil words, a small group of men came together in Northern Ireland last month in an attempt to overcome a formidable barrier that remains long after the decades of conflict came to an end.
“Do you take milk?” asked one. And with the tea dispensed, four former members of the British army and four former members of the Irish Republican Army commenced a meeting that was intended to start a process of reconciliation among men who had once been the most implacable of enemies.
In an encounter that was both undramatic but remarkable nonetheless, the men talked about the reasons they had taken up arms, the consequences of their decisions and their hopes of making a contribution to a lasting peace.
It was an all-too rare meeting: while ex-members of the IRA have met former police officers and prison officers as part of the peace process, and former republican and loyalist paramilitaries have reached out to each other over the divide, ex-members of the IRA and the British military have rarely encountered each other since the 1998 Good Friday agreement brought to an end 30 years of violence that had claimed more than 3,700 lives.
The Guardian has agreed not to identify the former IRA members or the location of the meeting it was invited to witness, other than to say that it happened in Derry. This was the city of Bloody Sunday, and the republicans who took part would face severe criticism from some local people — including dissident republicans — for agreeing to take tea with former British soldiers.