Growing up in 1970s Belfast, my colleague recalls the bleakest days of the Troubles. There had seemed a terrible inexorability in the unfolding of the history through which he lived, as if there were no possibility of anyone ever calling a halt to the violence.
Drinking tea, we recalled accounts of a moment when all that was to follow might have been averted. Bernadette Devlin, a young and fiery republican socialist, had sat and drunk tea with Ian Paisley, the rising firebrand of loyalism. The stories of tea in china cups being drunk in a front room of a Belfast house seemed a picture of amiability, an occasion which would surely be productive of a reasonable outcome.
Of course, the conversation over tea led nowhere, the violence escalated, the protagonists became entrenched, the views became polarised. It would take three thousand deaths before it was agreed that the killing should end.
Perhaps the problem lay in the English liberal assumption that people are reasonable and that reasonable people will be able to resolve their differences.
I remember the news report of Bernadette Devlin running across the floor of the House of Commons to attack Reginald Maudling, the Home Secretary. However much my parents disagreed with Maudling and the government of which he was a member, I remember them expressing opinions that this was not the way to resolve any divisions.
The failing of the assumption that people are reasonable is that it cannot cope with the situations where people are unreasonable. If the best efforts at rationality and reconciliation have been made and have been rebuffed, then what is there to be done to address problems?
It is not just a political problem, it applies as much to personal relationships.
If there have been apologies, if there have been genuine attempts at reconciliation, if there has been a spirit of sincere contrition and a wish from the heart to begin anew and every word is rejected, then where does one go?
‘It’s only words and words are all I have,’ wrote The Bee Gees in 1968. Being an English liberal, there is a feeling of being left at a loss as to what might be done. If words are all that one has, and if words are of no avail, then where does one go?
If Irish history is a lesson in personal relationships, then change can sometimes make glacier-like progress.