The Dangers of Repetition – Re-Telling the Troubles Story

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The Cranberries 1994 track Zombie has joined the canon of troubles art. It sits next to the poetry of Heaney, Carson and company in the category of lyrical responses to sectarianism. In terms of rock’s own response to the Troubles, The Cranberries can boast of a local authenticity that others can’t claim for their work on the same topic. At three decades remove Zombie maintains its despondent impact, as well as its radio hit catchiness.

Zombie captures the tenor of the Northern conflict. This is most conspicuous in the lyrics and the grunge-like guitars, but is also reinforced through the song’s structure. The song makes brilliant use of repetition. The famous verse that echoes the evasions of bien pensant NI society is a case in point,‘

But you see, it’s not me
It’s not my family
In your head, in your head, they are fighting
With their tanks, and their bombs
And their bombs, and their guns
In your head, in your head they are crying’
The informal pronoun gains weight and impact here; the repetition of ‘it’s’ becoming a hammer blow against those who would ignore the domestic war in favour of a middle class detachment.

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During the Troubles, violence followed repetitive patterns. An atrocity by one side would earn a counter-atrocity by another; you blow up a pub, we shoot up a building site. You murder children, we butcher pensioners. Political developments would also bring predictable results; the loyalist uptick in violence after the suspension of the assembly in 1972 would be repeated at other moments when loyalism felt threatened in the 80’s and 90s.

The violence remained traumatic and shocking despite this predictability, but the repetitiveness of the conflict had an impact upon the emotional life of the north. A general deadening of feeling, a loss of affect and sympathy towards suffering could be displayed even by sympathetic observers. There is only so much shock and horror that an individual holds in reserve and can draw upon. After years of conflict, the public’s response to any individual act of atrocious violence was not wide mouthed horror but a teeth-clenched helplessness in the face of a persistent cycle of violence. A contemporary analogy might be found in the development of responses to the epidemic of US mass shootings and white supremacist terrorism.

Bogside in the 60s

The repetitiveness of the Troubles poses problems for those who are looking to tell the story of the conflict. How do you provide a narrative of those decades that avoids becoming a mere catalogue of violence? How does a documentarian present this repetitive history without dulling the impact of the appalling horrors and crimes contained within it? These are serious concerns,as they drastically change the impact of a piece of public history.

The story of the troubles has been told many times by now. Those familiar with these narratives will be able to predict with some accuracy when common features will show up in a new version. The Civil rights movement is nearly always introduced after commonly repeated footage of bogside citizens speaking about the old NI’s sectarian discrimination. The introduction of the British army is usually bookended by the footage of catholic grannies giving them tea when they arrive, versus the angry protest of Belfast woman after the actions of the army had turned the nationalist community against them. The images are not clichés per se, but their use is well rehearsed

Spotlight on the troubles team

The BBC’S recent 7-part series, Spotlight on the troubles: A Secret History tries to get around the problem of repetitiveness through the novelty of their source material. Each episode claims to have found new discoveries that will cast  light on events and personalities that the audience thought they knew. The journalists at Spotlight have dug through recently opened archives, cultivated sources inside the British state, and interviewed as many individuals involved in the violence as they could. The films do get a touch repetitive themselves, as they repeatedly point out the novelty of their findings, but the journalists have no doubt performed wonderful research.

Des Long

The dedication and doggedness of the research staff at Spotlight have turned up some brilliant moments and interviews; little comments that add new depth to well-known moments. Brendan Duddy’s diary of the 1975 IRA ceasefire describes a then-youthful Martin McGuinness as a, ‘Little Hitler’, eager for control of the IRA and a return to violence. An interview with recalcitrant IRA commander Des Long descends into surreality as he describes the fall of the Stormont government. When Long talks about bringing down the sectarian administration, his eyes light up and his face lifts. He assumes the breezy nonchalance and easy pride of a man who has just gotten two strokes off his golf handicap. One could be forgiven for forgetting that Long is describing the outcome of a campaign of sectarian violence that he had helped to plan and co-ordinate. Rarely can the murder of innocent people have been reflected upon with such jovial unconcern.

Interesting as these moments are, the ‘secrets’  that the Spotlight team have uncovered do not substantially alter our understanding of the conflict. The team’s research has confirmed some long held suspicions, such as Gerry Adams’ presence on the IRA army council in the 1990s, or the Rev Ian Paisley’s uneasily close ties to loyalist paramilitaries, but very few of these facts are altogether new. Adams’ IRA history is a fact that only Gerry Adams bothers to deny these days, and Paisley’s ties to loyalist violence would be obvious to anyone who re-watches his speeches from the 70’s and 80’s. Likewise, A Secret History makes much of its new insights into collusion between the Security services and loyalist paramilitaries; something that was being described on the BBC by Peter Taylor two decades ago (the issue has also attracted detailed scholarly accounts in recent years). Spotlight’s films are therefore not a new history, but a re-telling of a currently held history with some added flavour.

I think that Spotlight’s adherence to the conventional narrative of the Troubles leads them to repeat some problems common to these narratives; a narrowness of vision and lack of proper contextualisation of Northern Irish society during the conflict. In particular, I feel their focus on clarifying  details of the violence leads the filmmakers to lose sight of explaining the origins and longevity of the conflict.

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In another post, I’m going to take a closer look at the issues with these orthodox public histories of the troubles, and suggest some ways around those pitfalls. In the meantime, I would like to wholeheartedly encourage readers of this blog to go and watch A Secret History on BBC iplayer. Whatever issues I have with their narrative, these are remarkable films and the Spotlight team deserve enormous credit for their work.

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