This article by Ian Cobain appeared first in The Guardian
Wednesday 4 March 2015
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.
For their part, some of the former soldiers were clearly apprehensive when travelling to republican strongholds. For some, it was the first time they had visited such areas since leaving the army.
Both sides agreed that such face-to-face encounters remained an important part of a peace process that is ongoing; that it was important that they should “rehumanise” the people who had once been their enemies.
“It was never personal: we were always targeting the man in the uniform, in order to send a message to Whitehall,” said one of the former IRA men.
This man had been in Derry when members of the Parachute Regiment shot 26 unarmed demonstrators on Bloody Sunday in January 1972, killing 14 men and boys, yet insisted that he bore no animosity towards individual soldiers, “even the ones who I saw carrying out atrocities”.
He said: “It’s very important that we should do this. We should try to learn from what happened here, in order to help to promote peace in the future.”
Another added: “Sometimes it is important to walk in someone else’s shoes for understanding in order to bring about reconciliation.
“I feel lessons can be learned from the past conflict here in Ireland, by talking and engaging in an open and honest way, lessons which could be useful in other parts of the world.
“We made mistakes in dealing with conflict. These mistakes should now never be repeated anywhere in the world: that’s why I welcome this engagement between former enemies.”
Sometimes it is important to walk in someone else’s shoes for understanding to bring about reconciliation
The meeting was one of a series organised by Veterans For Peace UK, the British branch of a US anti-war organisation for former members of the military, and Coiste na n-Iarchimí, a Belfast-based support group for republican ex-prisoners.
In some senses, the eight men had a great deal in common: all were white working-class men in their 40s and 50s with experience being in a disciplined organisation, handling weapons, and of conflict.
But the differences were also clear. While the former British soldiers are now anti-war, with regrets about the way in which they performed some of their duties in Northern Ireland – harassing some civilians, for example, or failing to understand how intimidating their presence could be when they were on patrol in nationalist areas – all but one of the former IRA men insisted they had no regrets about anything they had done.
There were differences, too, in the way in which they become involved in the conflict. None of the former soldiers had joined up in order to serve in Northern Ireland. Ben Griffin, who served for eight years in the Parachute Regiment and the Special Air Service, described himself as having been an “an ideological recruit” to the army. “I thought it was the finest institution in the world.”
Lee Lavis said he joined the Staffordshire Regiment after leaving school as “an economic recruit” because the nearby coal mines had closed down and the local brewing industry was being mechanised.
Kieran Devlin, who grew up in a Unionist area of Northern Ireland, joined the Royal Engineers after his father, an Englishman and former soldier, persuaded him that he would have a great time. He left the army after serving in the Gulf war in 1991 and a period of heavy drinking, imprisonment and involvement in far-right politics followed.
Michael Pike joined the Scots Guards at 20 to escape a life of drug-taking and petty crime. “It was either the heroin or the army. The British army saved me.”
The accounts of the former IRA men, on the other hand, suggested that none saw himself as having gone to war; rather, they believe the war came to them. Each spoke about having witnessed Bloody Sunday, or the fighting between nationalists and the police in the summer of 1969 that is known as the Battle of the Bogside.
One said simply that he first joined the youth wing of the IRA in the early 70s, “and when you were 16 you went into the army”. His former comrades all nodded. All four had spent time in jail – although they spoke not of being arrested, but of being “captured during an operation” – and are now involved with a local ex-prisoners’ support group, Tar Abhaile. Two of the four men served very long sentences.
After talking for about two hours, the eight men who met in Derry agreed that they should meet again and continue to tell their stories in an attempt to build a more trusting relationship.
As well as meeting former IRA men in Derry, the former soldiers met others in Belfast and South Armagh last month as well as other members of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland.
The purpose of the trip, Griffin said, was to “reach out to people to try and gain some understanding of what led them to join the IRA and participate in armed conflict”, while helping former members of the IRA to understand why young men had joined the British army, and how they came to be in Northern Ireland.
Their story is not much different from our story as soldiers. The key to reconciliation is listening
Kieran Devlin“I think it’s important for enemies and communities that see each other as enemies to come together and try and humanise each other, to meet the real person, rather than seeing them as ‘the other’.”
Griffin said he believed that learning why people joined the IRA could lead to a greater understanding of the reason people have resisted the western military in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. “It might help us to understand current conflicts and also to challenge our governments on those current conflicts.”
Lavis, who settled in Belfast after leaving the army, and made the initial contact with former members of the IRA, said he was keen to promote understanding, rather than judgement. “I’m not interested in sack cloth and ashes.”
Devlin said he had been fearful of travelling to republican areas of Northern Ireland, and has since faced criticism from unionist neighbours, some condemning him as a traitor.
“There was an element of fear there and, I have to be honest, a bit of mistrust,” he said. “I had never met a republican before except when I was on operational duties with the army, which is quite shocking really.
“I was taken aback by their hospitality and, for want of a better word, their normality, and they weren’t aggressive to me. They had a good point to make which was easily understood once I sat and listened: why they were involved in the armed conflict.
“Initially, I didn’t tell them very much. I was guarded. But it didn’t take long to come around. Their story is not really much different from our story as soldiers. I think the key to the reconciliation process is listening.”
Séanna Walsh, a former IRA prisoner who helped to organise the meetings, said: “I think all engagement is very useful and important. People can get an understanding … you can see beyond the uniforms and the rifles and helmets and the armoured cars, and you can see the real people.
“It’s important to listen to their stories, to get an understanding of what they were actually going through and also the effect that the conflict has had upon them.”
Through such contacts, Walsh believes, it is possible to build relationships with former enemies. Moreover, he said, people who were involved in the conflict “have a responsibility to attempt to rebuild society, to ensure that our children’s future is not our past”.