Where “shared memory” and “story” meet lies something valuable

I was lucky enough to be asked by Youth Action Northern Ireland to present a workshop at their two-day Islands of Innovation conference/symposium attended by young leaders (18-35) yesterday in Belfast.

The key purpose was to “explore what Britain and Ireland could look like in 2021, consider how they can contribute and assess what decisions need to be taken now and in the future”. A welcome shift from the resolutely backward focus of our stranded politics right now.

It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that we’re running out of good stories to tell. If, for instance, Stormont feels like the bedeviled Castle in Sleeping Beauty, reviving democracy’s dozing inhabitants has proven a lot more problematic than many of us first imagined.

One or two set-piece cinematic moments (or ‘kisses’ for the purposes of this analogy) clearly aren’t enough (think Trimble, Hume and Bono, think Chuckle Bros?).

In my session (with four different self-selecting groups) I asked people to identify shared memories (collective experiences with some broad social or political impact), then identify some of the stories that arose from them and, if time permitted, examine the impact line between them.

It’s the first time I’d had a chance to work in that way with any group, so it was a little stop/start at times (thanks, Ann-Marie!). But the general idea was to try and reach beneath the “issues” to look at how stories arise from events and to see what we might learn from them.

There were lots of interesting themes, some of which we had too little time to explore. The Belfast Agreement was particularly rich with one person relating a personal story of how it had meant a turning within his own family from pure tribal identity and towards something greater.

Others saw it as a governing point, and whatever the twists and turns ever since, they still view it as a story of aspiration. As Deirdre Heenan pointed out this is a generation many refer to as the GFA generation: ie, folk whose lives are marked more by peace than conflict.

Shared memories are often large-scale events and, often as not, traumatic. Brexit, for instance, looms large in all five territories but particularly in the Republic where it is experienced as an external threat and according to one voice has had an odd unifying effect on national politics.

This underlines the importance of exploring new storylines and their particular (and peculiar) connection to given shared memories.

Image borrowed from here: https://www.saybrookpartners.com/single-post/2016/1/28/Whats-Your-Story

A few years ago Professor  Geoff Beattie gave a fascinating presentation at Edgehill University in which he pointed out that during and after WWI only officers were given talking therapies, whilst the enlisted men were simply demobbed and sent home.

By speaking about their experiences, Beattie said, the thoughts of the officer patients were given linguistic structure, shape, and size which could then be reckoned with and objectified. Crucially the patients gained egress from passive capture by the internalised trauma of the memory.

In Northern Ireland, one notable aspect of post GFA storytelling is how strictures have emerged around what can and cannot be said. It could be suggested that the regular pattern of mutual political veto, censure, and censorship of the last twenty years have made the present breakdown almost inevitable.

The result is a pervasively meretricious sense of what’s real. Playwright Gary Mitchell noted years ago that when the “agreed truth becomes accepted, the real truth becomes a lie”. Subsequently, we’ve seen that ‘truths’ agreed entirely for political convenience are incredibly fragile.

Which brings me to my final theme. With the advent of the public internet, the mainframe of human knowledge has been in constant flux. A good example of that came up with the Flag dispute. The story raised was the sense of belonging (well documented in a QUB report).

What’s less well studied is how this protest sparked by a decision to restrict the flying of the UK flag over Belfast City Hall triggered an emergent network of activists, whose exploitation of Twitter and Facebook allowed them to play cat and mouse with the police on an epic scale.

The PSNI, one of the best-trained police forces in dealing with the relatively static set piece Belfast model of rioting, could not keep up with the digital swift changing venues nimbly organised and reorganised (and hidden in full view on social media).

Every motivated individual had fully onboard comms access (via their mobiles) to a rich informational network that allowed them to do things and enaction a fresh narrative challenge of the type so often denied them via more normal or conventional means.

My intention is not to laud the actions of the protesters, but rather to highlight the purpose of my own exercise: ie, to show how meaningful stories can act as powerful connectors to shared memories. And importantly, how they can perform as a call to action.

To Bryan Delaney’s warning, “in this country, we need to be extremely vigilant about the stories we choose to tell ourselves”, I’d add Viktor Frankl: “if we take man as he really is, we make him worse.  But if we overestimate him we promote him to what he really can be”.

In Northern Ireland, we are in danger of being crushed by an insouciant refusal to admit new stories into the public space. Delaney’s vigilance implies not more control, but actively making “a choice between stories which shrink life and stories which expand it”.

It was refreshing to be reminded that to younger people the Belfast Agreement still means aspiration. There is talk amongst some older folk of ditching it, but that would be to vastly underestimate its signal power within Northern Ireland’s shared memory.

If some of the older generation treated the Agreement as a once and final act of redemption, it may be that the fatalism born of their experience of the conflict has put limits on their ambitions and aspirations of what can be achieved by bedding in the peace.

At a time of internet-borne abundance of information and stories, it may also be that the need to make choices has pushed them back into the comfort of tribal shibboleths and stupifying technocratic explanations for why change is not actually possible.

In this era of digital atomisation (and not just in Northern Ireland), we need to deliberately consistently search for new and political stories which help realign the machinery of our enabling institutions (government, amongst others) with the needs and aspirations of its people.

That almost certainly means searching for stories in places at the edge where people have rarely bothered searching before, connecting them to larger shared memory and aligning them actions capable of being agreed and and put to work.

In difference, lies possibility…

Scott E Page, Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies

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  • MainlandUlsterman

    Really interesting post, Mick. As one who last lived in N Ireland a generation ago now, the theme of inter-generationality is fascinating. Your post chimes with what survey data seems to be suggesting. There has been a shift between the middle aged cohorts with Troubles experience and people who are under 30 now. And it seems more of the latter buy into a set of values grounded in the GFA and in, in global culture, more inclusive and socially liberal times. They care less about ideology and more about making things better. It’s a given that people work co-operatively to do that.

    As I say, these are global cultural attitude shifts people in the market research world have been watching and working with for at least 15 years, so this is not wishful thinking, it seems to be really happening and is very heartening. Let the young lead us …

  • ted hagan

    Interesting interview with former RUC asst chief constable Peter Sheridan on the Miriam O’Callaghan RTE show this morning where he touches on this subject and on his friendship with Martin McGuinness. Both moving and funny. A decent, charming man.

  • mickfealty

    Thanks. I think much of what will follow will derive from using long held, inherited values to engage with what’s practically achievable.

    The emotional and psychological blocks we’re currently derive from that war borne experience of “the other”, which in a way the Belfast Agreement has abolished: the two referendums displacing the original ‘mandate’ for ongoing militarist activism from the 1918 election.

    This is why talk of the wholesale replacement of the GFA is foolish. It needs a combo of trim tabbing and the emergence of new stories. Does anyone doubt the staleness of the ones we’re being offered.

    What’s needed is the practical means of cracking open new stories that are resonant with our broadest forms of shared memory…

    My Swedish collaborator in this area John Kellden posted this response on FB yesterday…

    “…searching for stories in places at the edge…”
    — Mick Fealty

    The combination of different stories, told by not so different people, acquired and told and shared in different ways, making all the difference in the world.

    The way to start the search is to copy from Darwin’s principles of vary, select, and amplify.

  • mickfealty

    That’s part of the inheritance. The question facing us here and now is what challenges have we faced our successor generation with? And how do give them permission to get on with it?

  • eamoncorbett

    Maybe get the main protagonists out of NI to Sweden or somewhere, introduce a neutral skilled negotiator with a track record who can enlighten them on how political conflicts can be squared in a face saving fashion . Suggest what a future could look like for the post GFA generation, maybe take a few of the successor generation on the trip to stir some sort of vision within the tribal camps.
    The current megaphone style talks are doomed to failure in the heated atmosphere that is the bear pit of NI politics.
    The only problem I would encounter with this idea would be , on returning to the said bear pit would the old animosities come to the fore.

  • mickfealty

    Fair points Eamonn. But if you turn it round and look at it from the point of view a highly motivated young leader of the successor generation, what would your advice be to them?

  • tmitch57

    Mick, the first part of your post reminded me of what I refer to as a “politico-historical myth.” This is a true incident from history that at some future time is revived in a stylized fashion to be retold or reenacted on a regular basis because it fits a perceived political need. The best example for those in Northern Ireland is the Siege of Derry. The siege has several important elements. First, Catholics or nationalists as the enemy that must be kept outside the gates. Second, the heroism of the Apprentice Boys. Third, the cry of “no surrender,” which is really code for no compromise or even no negotiation. And finally, the warning against Lundies within the walls who might betray the people.

    It is interesting that all the societies that I think of as “siege democracies” i.e. Israel, NI, South Africa, and the American South have at least one historical myth that is really a siege myth. In Israel it is Masada, in South Africa it is Blood River, and in America it is the Alamo (and until recently the Battle of Little Big Horn as well). Unfortunately as long as a society remains deeply divided it cannot have a common myth or at least one with an agreed telling. The closest thing to a nationalist myth is probably the story of the Easter Rising. Although in the future the story of the defense of St. Matthew’s church in August 1969 could replace that for northern republicans.