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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  • Hopping The Border

    “the previously officially accepted narrative”

    Was there ever such a thing? What was it?

    I think it is a stretch to say it has ever existed.

  • Barney

    Its not an ethnic conflict that is just wishful thinking.

  • Turgon

    It is to all intents and purposes the same as an ethnic conflict. There were no significant ethnic differences between Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims yet that is regarded as an ethnic conflict. The same largely pertains to Rwanda etc. As such the short hand of ethnic conflict is much more valid than saying it was a religious conflict.

  • Charles_Gould


    “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. ”

    The word “narrative” is like “story”. A kind of fiction.

    Do unionists find it acceptable to have a narrative that ignores difficult truths?

    I ask because the troubles were indeed messy and the unionist-ruled period before the troubles not above criticism.

    I would have thought a “narrative” is of little value if it is not credible. And the more one sided a narrative becomes the less credible it becomes.

    That is surely why re-writing history isn’t going to happen: the facts get in the way.

  • Charles_Gould


    To put my question another way: would unionists find acceptable a narrative that is so self-serving it is at the point where it is not close to the truth?

    Isn’t it good for the soul of unionism to have an honest narrative?

  • Barney

    I dont think that it is a religious or ethnic conflict.

    There is no logical reason to draw comparisons between here and either central Africa or the Balkans. Both those places have very different histories to us and are much more complex than here, certainly true for the balkans, i’m not that familiar with central Africa.

    I would love to see some evidence for an ethnic division in Ireland. To me it appears that those promoting the ethnicity theory seem extremely reticent when it comes to explaining exactly what it is. There is a small and sad subset of republicans who share the same crazy pure blood idea but most people reject it out of hand. How can a voting preference affect my ethnicity?

    Is the unionist ethnic clique drawn so narrow that there no room for an Irish Catholic within It there used to be. Is it not possible to be pro union but anti monarchy a kind of British republican.

  • None of us should forget that the conflict, ethnic or otherwise, was between very small sections from both “tribes” and thoroughly rejected by most members of said tribes.

  • Charles_Gould

    I think when people say “ethnic” they mean by this “cultural”. The tension being between British/protestant and Irish/Catholic cultures.

  • Barney

    Charles wrote
    “I think when people say “ethnic” they mean by this “cultural””

    No they don’t, those who speak like that truly want to believe there is an ethnic division in Ireland. It used to be acceptable to talk along religious lines but that is no longer the case especially so since the demographics changed and made that talk unfashionable.

    As I said Unionism needs a creation myth to justify its undemocratic nature.

  • Charles_Gould


    But ethnic does actually mean cultural, doesn’t it?

  • Sp12

    “None of us should forget that the conflict, ethnic or otherwise, was between very small sections from both “tribes” and thoroughly rejected by most members of said tribes.”

    My feeling is that it depends on how you define ‘conflict’, if it’s purely in terms of those willing to use violence then yes, it involved a small section. The greater conflict however drew almost all of us in on one side or the other.

  • Barney

    It depends how thin you wish to slice the carrot. If you like it thin I would ask what is the cultural difference? I personally wouldnt paint either Unionism or Nationalism into a corner by defining either along ethnic or cultural lines. Its just a nonsense and basically a fascist way of viewing the world.

    I’m sure there are gay, non creationist, socialist, republican unionists I met one briefly several years ago but he was jewish and admittedly a rarity. Now I’m not sure which ethnicity or culture you would pigeonhole him as but would he fit into Poots hole or not?

  • Charles_Gould

    Barney: fair do’s. Would you say the same of Scottish/Engish/Welsh/Irish differences though?

  • Barney

    That is an incredibly difficult question to answer because its too big and we all live in the modern world but yes people are the same.

  • Charles_Gould

    Yes, these things are I agree not that simple. Thanks for being straightforward with me.

  • Raymonds Back

    The IRA’s view of the conflict was that it was neither ethnic nor religious: to them it was racial; it was Irish against English. Now while that did not stop them twisting themselves over backwards in attempts to explain how the Irish people they killed (the majority of deaths) were linked to the British War Machine, it did not change their view of the conflict. While the Protestant paramilitaries claimed their conflict was Protestant against the IRA, it was in reality Protestant against any random Catholics they found it easiest to kill. So their conflict was, and is, religious. It’s anybody’s guess what the Bristish Army thought the nature of the conflict was, as even the ‘top, elite’ Military Reaction Force seemed to find it easier to kill random Catholcis rather than the IRA men they were tasked to kill. But their government spent great efforts to portray the conflict as religious/ethnic rather than invader/invaded as the former analysis neatly took them out of the equation. Efforts that were aided for the most part by the Irish government. And efforts that appear to have succeeded, judging by the comments above.

  • Sp12,

    Good point. By the “conflict” I did indeed mean those prepared and willing to use violence against “themmuns”.

  • New Yorker

    Some people hold a ‘pox on both their houses’ position and that the last 40 years has been a zero zero game. The narrative would include the multitude of unnecessary deaths and injuries, the alienation of one community from the other, the choking of hope for better days and many other negatives because a small minority on both sides chose to engage in violence and criminality. In many ways it is still a zero zero game.

  • Greenflag

    ” In many ways it is still a zero zero game.”

    The game has gone into negative territory recently which is for the mathematically challenged -less than zero . As the NI First Minister said the alternative to current power sharing is more conflict .

    Apart from a small minority on both sides the conflict such as it was and is -was never ethnic , cultural , religious or racially based . There appears to have been a lunatic fringe of racist gibberish promoted by some far right nutters among some loyalists but the anthropologists and bio scientists have done for them what Charles Darwin did for the ‘creationists ‘

    What it was /is and will continue to be about is whether Northern Ireland should be governed as part of Ireland (the whole island ) or as part of the UK . Its that simple and that complicated .

    The only broadly acceptable solution found was the GFA which mandates power sharing between the communities and gives ALL the people of Northern Ireland the right to decide their constitutional future whether it be to remain within the UK polity or transfer to an All Ireland State .

    For now NI remains part of the UK polity . How long that situation remains is up to demography and how the power sharing experiment works or doesn’t work in the longer term within Northern Ireland .

  • Pete Rock


    I’m not sure Poots would enjoy someone fitting inside his hole….or maybe he would.

    On a serious note I’m atheist, unionist and anti monarchy.

    Plenty of people like me within the “Prod” side of the coin, you should get out more.

  • Barney

    You rock, I also detest narrow descriptions of people.

  • tacapall

    I would also echo Barneys sentiments Pete but on a serious note what do you think of this –

    Adams calls for “new relationship between Ireland and Britain”

    “We must all rise above partitionism if we are to manage a process of replacing division by the unity of the people of this island whatever form they wish this to democratically take.

    “This means defining an entirely new relationship between Britain and Ireland. It means reimagining a new dispensation”

    Can we have an agreed unified Ireland within the union but without the Crown claim to ownership of a part of Ireland. Is Sinn Fein now accepting there must be some sort of political link with Britain and Ireland if we are to move forward.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    I quoted this a week or two ago on another thread, but here’s the wikipedia definition of ethnicity:
    “Ethnicity or ethnic group is a socially defined category of people who identify with each other based on a shared social experience or ancestry. Membership of an ethnic group tends to be associated with shared cultural heritage, ancestry, history, homeland, language (dialect) or ideology, and with symbolic systems such as religion, mythology and ritual, cuisine, dressing style, physical appearance, etc.”

    I know you mean well in wishing there were no such thing as ethnic difference – but wishing does not make it so. Worse, I think, in the context of Northern Ireland where both main groups have had the validity of their self-definitions denied by the other at some time, asserting there are no ethnic differences rings alarm bells.

    Ethnic difference does not have to be set in stone, it is a fluid thing. To state that these differences exist is not, for me anyway, to seek to drive a wedge between people or pigeonhole people who don’t identify with either of the main groups; it’s to promote tolerance of difference between those who identify themselves as different from you. There’s a thin line between wishing that cultural or ethnic differences didn’t exist and a kind of unwitting Vernichtungslust against groups that don’t fit with your idea of what they should be. I think we’ve all experienced it. I’m not saying you meant that, but do just be aware that denying the existence of ethnic difference can also play into the hands of those uncomfortable with pluralism.

  • Barney

    Mainland Unionist

    As I pointed out to you changing how I vote does not change my ethnicity. There is not one person on this Island who is pure blood anything. Its not that I wish well its that there is no scientific basis for insisting that black is white.

    What exactly are these differences that are so profound that they simply must constitute an ethnic divide? Is it the way one dips a soda into the pan, or perhaps boiling the spuds is a culturally significant way? What are the traditional costumes?

    Its madness to propose such a fascist idea backed by a paragraph from wiki.

  • Pete Rock

    Adams calls for new “relationship between Britain and Ireland”.

    I thought there already was a new relationship between Britain and Ireland.

    Possibly when the question of Scottish Independence is answered there will be room for new relationships being formed throughout the Isles.

  • Greenflag

    In the unlikely event that Scotland votes Yes for independence then there could be some fall out which could impact the situation as between NI and the UK . If the status quo remains as it is within the UK after the referendum then the status quo will remain the same in NI .

    I think Mr Adams is referring to the relationship between the Northern Ireland ‘republicans /SF and the UK . Perhaps he means to undo the SF Westminster Abstention policy for a start . Perhaps he can see the British Labour Party needing some SF votes in the Commons at a future date – a possibilty more likely if the Scots opt out of Westminster .

    Que sera sera . The geography and geology of these islands won’t be changing anytime soon .