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.
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