Zero sum narratives

The recent BBC documentary on The Disappeared has been picked over in detail. It is, however an example of the continuing “War of the Past” we have been having recently in Northern Ireland. Frequently this has been described as an attempt to create a “Narrative of the Past” in which case we seem to have a Zero Sum Narrative developing. The battles over these narratives seem analogous to trench warfare with attacks on the other side’s position being variously repulsed or else a tiny amount of ground being ceded. Mick has a most literary version of this concept below. (I made this blog last week but was waiting for an opportunity to put it up).

In these battles Sinn Fein have up until now been the most effective. In a way this may be because they were starting from a very detailed fully thought out position. In addition they have the most to gain from a change to the previously officially accepted narrative. Sinn Fein always manages to project an image of an apparently seamless progression in their narrative. Helped also by the fact that their senior leadership are the same people who have been in charge from the very start.

Set against that narrative is the standard unionist narrative. Its most prominent supporter has become Mike Nesbitt the leader of the UUP. From his detailed knowledge of victims (both as Victims’ Commissioner and previously as a reporter) he can answer many of the claims of republicans and remind them of events that derail their worldview. It is, however, essentially a reactive narrative as it waits for republicans.

A further though less relevant narrative is that proffered by the lestsgetalongerists. Rather than being a middle way between unionist and republican it sits to the side of that essentially sniping at all sides. Their analysis came close to gaining official credibility during the Blair administration but has tended to loose credibility especially after the spectacular act of intellectual and moral self immolation which was the Eames Bradley’s report. Furthermore the gradual drying up of funding has reduced the letsgetalongerists abilities to use state largess to advance their positions.

The reality is that there is never going to be an accepted narrative of the past and it appears very close to a zero sum game. In general the more blame a unionist narrative lays on republicans and the less it lays on unionists the more acceptable to unionists it becomes. Clearly the converse is also likely to be correct and the more blame a republican analysis lays on unionists and “the Brits” and the less it accepts for republicans the more acceptable it becomes to republicans.

The other reason for no finally acceptable narrative is (as fitzjameshorse has repeatedly pointed out) is that there was no final victory here. In many ethnic conflicts when one side wins outsiders may demur but the state’s narrative tends to be accepted internally by victors and vanquished at least publicly: Rhodesia / Zimbabwe being a fairly good example at least until the economy collapsed. In Northern Ireland, however, there was no victory: certainly not for the IRA but the state made a compromise prior to complete defeat of republicanism. Again the extent to which people believe one side won or were going to win tends to mirror their political position.

In reality the narrative one accepts is most likely to be directly related to where on the political spectrum one positions oneself. As such attempts to create a narrative of the past are impossible and they simply become another subject for the endless battle between unionism and nationalism. This is typical of ethnic conflict and the sooner we realise it is insoluble probably the better.

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