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

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  • Count Eric Bisto von Granules

    This is obviously one for the academics only as I’m still trying to work out what the title of the article means

  • tacapall

    It means one mans narrative is another mans propaganda. Brushing those bits of truth that doesn’t suit the promoted narrative isn’t just a Sinn Fein problem and those who push that myth are simply applying their own unique slant on a period of history that seems to be changing by the day.

  • Fortlands

    I’m with you on wanting to kick the weary word ‘narrative’ into a ditch somewhere, to be eaten by passing foxes/badgers. But I think you’re straining a bit in your response to Declan’s slightly big-wordy comment. All he’s saying is that the British government is dancing to a unionist tune…Seems a point worth making. Could be debated, I’m sure, but it’s hardly an outlandish comment. Btw, did Declan use the n word??

  • Niall Noigiallach

    Mick, genuine question here, how come none of the other parties are put up to the same level of scrutiny on Slugger as Sinn Fein? 10 of your last 21 pieces have been directly about Sinn Fein and that takes us back to just March 6th.

    How do they command such stern examination bearing in mind that there are other parties out there?

  • sherdy

    Mick’s obscurantist use of this narrative is just another of his imaginative ways of trying to poke Sinn Fein in the eye.

    But its so obscurantist that his purpose is somewhat lost, and as an opinion piece it just withers on the vine.

    Niall, you may not like the idea of Mick continually trying to malign the Sinn Fein image, but if you check the opinion polls over the last few years, the harder he tries to put them down the higher ratings.

    But you’re right, his attacks are totally one-sided, and I think Mick just loses credibility because of it.

  • Mick Fealty


    It’s primarily because I’m following the #ShinnersList story, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect me to balance that inquiry with other stories that may be less compelling.

    The list matters. The fact that it was brought into existence in the clandestine and unaccountable way it was matters too. And I suspect that it also matters that it no longer functions in quite the way some of those names on it may have been led to believe.

    In other news Ivor Bell, who was, apparently, court marshalled by the IRA after the 1986 split, has been arrested (http://goo.gl/NWsPUH).

    For once I think I slightly agree with Sherdy. Pretty much nothing I’ve said about SF has made the slightest difference that I can quantify to their overall political trajectory… so I am not sure why people should be worried?

    But, honestly, if you think there is something important I’ve missed, I’ll be happy to cover it…


    The piece is a tad over worked I’ll give you that. I’m sort happy to do that for broader reasons of tracking the ebb and flow of the general game. Two things though:

    – The UK Government are by definition dancers to unionist tunes. It’s only according to the SF ‘narrative’ that they should be skewing the game in SF’s favour.

    – Unless I am doing Declan a huge disservice he IS actually complaining that she’s taken immunity off the table. That surely means he wants immunity for IRA and other offences, yet maintaining that he wants to draw a line at the state offenders.

    This latter is how they shot themselves in the foot over the 2006 NI Offences Bill… I’ve said it before, if there’d been some serious progress in the meantime, then none of these things would matter in the same way… because there’d be some mutual investment in the new project…

  • sherdy

    Mick, – I’m just glad Ivor Bell wasn’t court martial led by the IRA.

  • tacapall

    Your head to head will be interesting then Mick

  • jagmaster

    When I see the word “narrative” I reach for my revolver.

  • Neil

    – The UK Government are by definition dancers to unionist tunes. It’s only according to the SF ‘narrative’ that they should be skewing the game in SF’s favour.

    Nonsense. Was Labour dancing to a Unionist tune when negotiating the GFA? Obviously not, if they had been there would have been no agreement.

    – Unless I am doing Declan a huge disservie he IS actually complaining that she’s taken immunity off the table. That surely means he wants immunity for IRA and other offences, yet maintaining that he wants to draw a line at the state offenders.

    You are doing him a disservice then. He’s stated in plain English, pasted below for your convenience, that by out and out rejecting amnesty, targeted or otherwise, they are rejecting the Haass proposals. Ergo the British government has moved from being custodians of the process to being Unionist participants in the process.

    By setting out the primacy of a single narrative, and rejecting the use of immunity as one instrument to assist in dealing with the past, the British Government has come out against the Haass compromises.

    Everything changes however when all that suggests an emergent British Government strategy to derogate from the terms of binding agreements to suit an exclusively Conservative and unionist agenda.

    So if we can now expect the (Tory) government to negotiate on behalf of Unionism, should they not be in the room when the negotiating happens? Or will they just let everyone waste weeks coming up with proposals then endorse the Unionist wishlist.

  • Niall Noigiallach

    Mick, I’m sure other stories out there could have been much more compelling had they been dissected and then injected with the same steroids #Shinnerslist was.

    Sherdy, it’s not that I don’t like Mick continually trying to malign the Sinn Fein image, I couldn’t give a dooby duck, it’s just what kind of site are we participating in? Is it a proper forum for decent debate or another anti-SF message board? If it’s the latter then we’re all dooby ducked because we’re not going to hear anything different than we have done for 30 odd years. We’ll all end up being unoriginal.

  • David Crookes

    Three cheers, jagmaster. Reload and keep firing.

    On an evil day some academic or journalistic twitbrain first baptizes the jargon-word ‘key’, or ”discourse’, or ‘narrrative’, or ‘toxic’.

    Other twitbrains take up the stupid new word at once, and run with it obediently.

    Before you know the whole oegophonous multitude is using it obsessively.

    After a while people begin to award themselves extra marks for using ghastly twin-sets like ‘key discourse’ and ‘toxic narrative’.

    Shoot them all. The modern obsession with the word ‘key’ represents an epidemic fluke invasion of the human brain. Already we have ‘keyer’, ‘keyest’, ‘keyness’, and ‘non-keyness’. No ugliness is too great for the twitbrains.

    I’m going out now to conduct a key discourse with my garden about the narrative of non-toxic manure.