On Peace Process™ narrative and how some injustices subconsciously disappear along with any sober consideration of the future…

It’s fascinating how narrative works. It’s not just about storytelling (which the Greeks called diagesis), but the actions that give it substance and meaning, (or mimesis). It’s possible to understand stand most of the power plays in NI which often come over as puzzling cultural power plays in our local politics. 

So mimesis is Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of the bus, or Peter Thatchell performing a citizen’s arrest of Robert Mugabe. In each case the action is used to underwrite a larger story or narrative.

Seen in these terms, politics is a struggle for narrative dominance. When one wins out over another it often banishes the previously dominant one. So it is with victims of the Troubles. In large parts of civil society the appeal to law is perfectly legitimate in respect to the actions of the state. 

The counter narrative is then forced underground, brooding and then occasionally bursting forth with great social and narrative force. (The #TakeControl strap line of the Leave campaign was a good example of this). 

In the context of Northern Irish politics of dealing with the past, the idea of using the Maze as a centre for peace and reconciliation has been popular with the liberal establishment but it’s counterpart, “the terrorist shrine” proved too much for then First Minister Peter Robinson to resist.

The thing about these narratives is how they resonate, and persist. So that even the idea of prayer of the site of the ‘shrine’ is capable of enflaming strong passions, this from a Protestant pastor puts the counter narrative to the idea that the vast majority of Troubles victims must be reconciled to what was done to them as the acceptable price of peace, whilst victims of state violence are proactively encouraged to do the opposite … 

This interplay of narrative and counter narrative is seemingly interminable in Northern Ireland and noticeably  rather more well developed in terms of repackaging the traumatic experiences of the past than building robust narrative bridges with the future. 

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Zig70

    The problem for me is distilling it down to a good v evil. Almost as bad as the trope ‘both are as bad as each other’. People used to revel in how complicated our wee dispute was even though it was repeated all over the world in different guises. Victims quest for justice here is encouraged and used as a political tool, it’s a sad facet of our situation. The legal system has little sympathy and has long learned the lesson of muddying the water with revenge. We need to stop talking about justice as if it is easily attainable and stop confusing prejudice with knowledge.

  • Stories are mainly false. So imagining the future in stories is misleading. Professional historians do not create shrines to terrorism, nor celebrations of the small bits of reconciliation among the nastiness.

  • ted hagan

    The people of Northern Ireland have been indulged for far too long. Time for a firm hand and a loosening of the apron strings, otherwise we’ll be at this impasse for ever. The Troubles made this inconsequential little place feel important and centre stage, and too many people can’t let go of that.

  • Declan Doyle

    Excellent piece and points to the dangers of allowing political power play to call the shots via media propoganda on what constitutes suffering and who is more or less guilty above all others.

    It is a very nasty push and pull sinister culture which believes that conflicts can be simplistically explained on the basis of black and white, good versus bad self interested interference. The good and the bad being defined by whomever happens to have more power and influence over the propoganda machine of the time. This leads to the demonisation of those with an opposing view for political expediency and ignores the wider consequences of instability and discord.

    Instability and the threat to peace is seen as a gamble worth taking by those media and political machines who are threatened by the arrival of opposing groups who would dare to challenge their privileged position. Victims (as above) are regularly wheeled out to stop the process of reconciliation and the potential that brings to challenge the institutions of tge status quo.

    Effectively all deaths are packed tightly together and shuffled as if in a game of poker where the winner is actually the cheat in the corner with the ‘narrative’ card hidden undersleeve. Deliberately placed to ensure all the chips stack up in his favour. The other players are robbed of their interpretations, robbed of their grief and dehumanised as losers.

    The cheat then goes and uses his winnings to buy privilege and airtime in order stack the dead in order of his own personal preference with no more on his mind than maintaining his own false revionism backed by fellow elites and privileged overlords.

    The successful narrative is bought and sold on the market with the wealthiest controlling the direction and amending the narrative as and when is necessary. The narrative is a precious commodity, the funds provided by corrupt institutions, the Victims are nothing more than market objects used to effect the price.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Constitutional Reform Group’s Draft Act of Union comes out this week and will be put forward as a basis for discussion.

    Proposals include:

    * Westminster reduced to 146 MP’s – that will be popular.

    * Each nation and region of the UK having full sovereignty over its own affairs

    * The governance of in no particular order, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be reinvented within a new voluntary union.

    * Nations and regions of the UK envisaged to pool sovereignty to cover the matters they wish to be dealt with on a shared basis.

    * A reversal of the UK’s current constitution in which sovereignty rests in the centre and is then devolved to regions.

    * A new Act of Union would come into force only if passed by referenda majorities in all of the four nations.

    * Big transfers of development and wealth from London and the SE to the rest.

    How to hobble the English hegemon is the big circle to square and they have several suggestions but no proposal to split England into regions which to my mind is the only way to satisfy Wales, Ireland and Scotland.

    But Brexit has now given the regional idea a fighting chance: In a UK within the EU it would have had no chance whatever since it would be vulnerable to the entirely justifiable charge that the European anti-christ has come up with yet another plot to destroy England, land of hope, beauty and the Women’s Institute.

    I did not think the greyhound would be this fast out of the traps after Brexit. What will it do to the narrative.

  • Thomas Barber

    We keep hearing this line about Republicans rewriting the past but is it not the Police Ombudsman, Solicitors, the Courts and victims groups that are rewriting the past by uncovering evidence that brings into question or disproves widely held past beliefs or narratives about events that occurred in the past conflict.

    What point are you trying to make Mick ?

  • Tarlas

    It is fascinating; the power of narrative. And it poses many questions for the future and our use or misuse of that power. When we reflect on the array of possible missed opportunities, as a result of narrative dominance.

    The Maze stadium etc. could have been fantastic.

    With relation to victims, the Eames Bradley research that referred
    to compensation for victims could have been further developed. (The fact that it
    was reported that; a queue of people formed at Dawn Purvis’s PUP office looking for application forms spoke volumes of its acceptance by a section of the community that felt disenfranchised). But pin stripped suit; big tobacco officialdom opted to keep kicking that can further down the road. When we reflect on “The Peace Dividend” that was denied to these people, and the vast financial resources used to fund legalese and quangos. The unresolved issues around parades,bonfires, etc., etc. Would a different narrative have produced a better outcome?

    And now Brexit will expose our mirror like ideologies and our utopian or dystopian follies as just that.

    What of the above will be lost in the fog of Brexit confusion?

    What Narratives will accompany and steer our respective ideologies;
    on the next stage of our journey?

    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
    Frightful, sheer,no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
    May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
    Durance deal with that steep or deep. (Gerard Manley Hopkins).

  • Granni Trixie

    But they do come up with “their” version some innocently, some strategically.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    David, actually most professional historians do to some degree, if in a less obvious manner than the pop history versions. The great surge towards objective historiography that was instigated in Ireland with “Irish Historical Studies” movement could not sustain its momentum into a second generation beyond Lyons, Moody and Dudley-Edwards, with the “Revisionist School” that marked their acolytes choosing the simpler methodology of simply jumping hard on the other end of the see-saw to that occupied by the older Nationalist historiography.

    Lyons’ pointedly rebuked these “Constitutional Historians” of Revisionism who had been his pupils in an address at UCD in 1971. His concern was that they had, even at that early date, dropped well below the standard of objectivity and balance his generation had attempted to set. I quote some comments on this by J.M Regan:

    “Lyons said that those writing history for the needs of the present would select only evidence supporting their preferred cause. This described the present-centred ‘Whig’ history, which the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield described decades earlier. Where the constitutional historians adopted this approach, Lyons warned, they were doomed to write history as flawed as those who obsessed about physical force and ‘1916 and all that’.”

    There are far more accurate “narratives”, but such serious work seldom lends itself to the practical needs of politicians of any hue and accordingly such historians are not showcased by any state or political party to confirm current policy.