SF’s obscurantist use of ‘narrative’ and untying the knots in language to understand what is really being said…

As mentioned at the time, Declan Kearney’s blog for the BelTel was remarkable for a number of reasons, not least that apparently disjunctured reference to ‘narrative’. Nowadays there are academics in place who study narrative not as part of literature, but as part of a separate study of how stories affect the way we perceive the world.

Interestingly Dan Hodges recounts his first encounter with the phenomenon in New Labour:

When I used to work for the Labour Party much of our time was spent discussing our “narrative”. We became a bit obsessed about it, actually.

Everything we did had to fit “the narrative”. Everything we said had to “expand the narrative”. Every strategy had to “support the narrative”.

Initially, when I used to attend meetings, I didn’t have a clue what “narrative” actually meant. At least not in a political context. But I noticed that anytime someone mentioned it, everyone else in the meeting would look at them with newfound respect, and nod approvingly.

So I took to throwing it into conversation myself. “Good point. But I’ve got a question. Isn’t there a risk it could cut across our narrative?” Sometimes what was proposed would scythe across the narrative like a scimitar. At others it would align with the narrative with the neat precision of a jigsaw puzzle.

It didn’t really matter. I’d got in my daily narrative quotient. And I could see people looking at me and saying “Hmmm, Dan understands about narrative. He gets it.”

Over time I finally came to understand what everyone else was talking about. Basically it meant “a story”. Every policy announcement, appointment or decision had to tell the same story. Back then it was usually something about how Labour was changing, or how Labour was now appealing to the middle-class voters who had turned their backs on the party throughout the 1980s, or how Tony Blair walked on water.

Given the parallel tracks and the closeness of Sinn Fein to New Labour throughout the early years up to and after the Belfast Agreement, I’d say Dan’s experience and understanding of narrative is not far from the one borrowed by Sinn Fein.

This from my favourite Analysis programme on the subject is Robert McKee an expert on the matter:

McKEE: Narrative, story is a mirror of memory. When a human being thinks back to the past and tries to put their life together in some fashion, they cast their life into a little classical tale in order to make sense out of their life.

STONOR SAUNDERS: Robert McKee is an internationally recognised expert on how narrative is structured. After a brief spell as a screenplay writer, he devised a three-day seminar on the art of storytelling that has been oversubscribed for decades. His findings have been distilled into his book, ‘Story’.

McKEE: You see you can’t stop the mind from trying to organise life, and it’s going to organise it in causal chains with a beginning, middle and end. And it can dip in and out of that, it can play with it, but you can’t stop the mind from trying to make sense out of life by casting it in some kind of a story.

STONOR SAUNDERS: The bit that concerns me a little bit is what do you do with the elements of life that are not plot-driven, that might even be anti-plot; that are just chaotic, messy, unbiddable and not accountable to any kind of dramatic formulae?

McKEE: Yes, well you see politicians have never dealt with the chaos of life. They’ve never dealt with it rhetorically or dramatically. The chaos of life is simply ignored because the attitude of all politicians is that there are problems that we are solving as we speak or that we have plans to solve, and so the messy bits of life just are not included in any discussions of politics.[emphasis added]

One of the key differences between Labour’s use of narrative thinking and that of Sinn Fein’s that for Labour it was very much a party comms issue, and the buck stayed very much with the party. Indeed, as Hodges notes:

…by and large the narrative held. That’s partially because we were exceptionally disciplined at deploying it and sticking to it. But mostly it’s because it was broadly true. Labour was changing, it was reaching out to the middle classes and at that time Tony Blair could indeed traverse the Thames unaided.

Sinn Fein’s use of the term is divergent from Hodges’ description in two respects:

  • One, it’s quite a technocratic term being asked to stand for something otherwise quite ineffable (or perhaps more accurately unutterable) in the public mindspace.
  • And two, it seems to come with an expectation that the public must in some way, that’s never quite been explained, must accept their story, albeit as part of a duopoly with ‘the other’ (aka the two narratives model).

So that according to Declan British Government strategy is “to derogate from the terms of binding agreements to suit an exclusively Conservative and unionist agenda”, what he seems to be saying is that the British need to attend to SF’s agenda rather than as Villiers put it…

the UK government might not have a vote, we do have a voice. And that voice is resoundingly for the United Kingdom with Northern Ireland playing a full and active role within it.

As Danny Finklestein described it in that same Analysis programme:

…far from being the empty creation of public relations experts, [narrative] is really about the doing and transforming characters through action and not simply telling.

Perhaps the sheer lack of forward momentum through political action is the real political problem here. We have stability through the DUP and SF partnership, but few collective actions by which we might judge both their intentions and effectiveness.

The more that we return words to their home, seeing them in terms of the ordinary language contexts that they work within, the easier it becomes to untie the knots in language and understand what is really being said.

Tim Rayner

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