Writing Northern Nationalism: Paranoia and Nostalgia

By Cillian McGrattan

Following the extraordinary scenes at the funeral of the senior republican Bobby Storey at the end of June 2020, commentators, north and south of the border, offered numerous explanations. My intention here is not so much to compliment nor to critique those framings. Instead, I wish to offer a preliminary reading on how politicians use nostalgia to (re)write the past in order to obscure disconnects in the present. I conclude with some comments about how the nostalgic mode of writing history is not limited to politicians but is discernible in some academic writing on nationalism.


At a time when funerals in Northern Ireland were still subject to severe Coronavirus-related restrictions, the Irish Times reported that around 1,800 ‘men and women, dressed in black trousers and slacks, white shirts and black ties, lined up along the black-flag draped Andersonstown and Falls roads in west Belfast’.[i] Seemingly in contravention of the restrictions, the funeral cortege consisted not only of family members but the Sinn Féin leadership cadre – including deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, party president Mary Lou McDonald and other senior figures such as Gerry Adams and Gerry Kelly.

An alleged PIRA ‘enforcer’ and intelligence director, Storey was also a close confidant of Adams and one-time chairperson of Sinn Féin. ‘If it is possible for one individual to embody the spirit, the dynamic, the duration and durability, the depth and complexity of the republican struggle over the last 45 years’, wrote the Irish News columnist and former Adams-advisor, Jim Gibney, ‘then it was Bobby Storey’ (Irish News, 29 June 2020).

Others were markedly less positive in their assessment of Storey: ‘a notoriously violent thug’, for instance, was how the historian and Belfast Telegraph commentator Ruth Dudley Edwards described him.[ii] Writing in the Irish Times, the former Tanaiste, Michael McDowell argued that Storey’s funeral highlighted ‘much’ of what is often ‘left unsaid about the current state of the Provisional movement’ – namely, that it is directed by ‘an unaccountable politburo centred in west Belfast. That politburo regards itself as holding a mandate from history to exercise the powers of the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916’.[iii]

On a not-unrelated theme, the founding editor of the Slugger O’Toole political blog, Mick Fealty (quoting from People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll) notes the disparity between how Black Lives Matter protesters were targeted by the PSNI as compared to republican mourners. In so doing, Fealty suggests something akin to an existential dilemma – bad faith – on the part of Sinn Féin. This is because the funeral represented an ‘enormous breach of the equality principle that has rarely been off the lips of Sinn Féin elected representatives down the years. It’s the core of the larger problems underlying this issue, ie that we are not all equal in the eyes of that party’.[iv]

Why now?

Several commentators queried whether Sinn Féin really needed to hold such an extravagant funeral – particularly when it transpired that Storey wasn’t actually interred at the time at the republican plot at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast. Instead, the coffin was transported to the crematorium in Roselawn on the other side of the city (precipitating a major row in Belfast City Council, which was responsible for closing the site to facilitate republican access).[v] Maggie Scull, who has recently published an important history of the Catholic Church during the ‘Troubles’, offers one explanation for the spectacle: ‘funerals have always proved crucial to sustaining the republican tradition and the movement did not wish to forego this opportunity’.[vi]

I suggest that a common thread running throughout all these types of interpretation and framing is a tendency to (implicitly) take the republican Whiggish approach to history (a) too seriously, and (b) not seriously enough.

We can straightforwardly name tendency ‘(a)’ the Whiggish Commemoration. It centres around the inclination to look at the republican approach to its history through the lens of the present. Thus, critiques of the violent and exclusionary nature of Provisional republican ideology are highlighted; or discrepancies between Sinn Féin’s public positioning as the head of an equality vanguard are focused upon; or the power of traditional tropes and behaviours are pinpointed.

This tendency ignores the disconnects within Provisional republicanism and almost wishes away the impulse that makes Whiggism itself key to the movement’s continued survival. Recognizing that point allows us to see how important it must have been for the Sinn Féin republican movement to put on such a display.

We might name proposition (b) the Karla problem: recalling George Smiley’s recognition in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that his Soviet nemesis is not as all-powerful or unbeatable as he first appears. ‘Karla is not fireproof’, Smiley opines, ‘because he’s a fanatic’. The fanatic is always covering over a fatal flaw, Smiley concludes, and ‘that of lack of moderation will be his downfall’.[vii] The diagnosis of Sinn Féin’s Karla problem is simple: the display of strength really represented fundamental weaknesses.

Whiggish Commemoration

Provisional republicans understood the Storey funeral through the lens of nostalgia. As such, it is possible to take Sinn Féin MP and former Belfast lord mayor, John Finucane at face value when he tweeted that it ‘was an honour to call Bobby a friend & someone I could always rely on’. Finucane continued that Storey’s demise ‘will leave a huge loss for his family, his friends & republicans all over Ireland & beyond’.[viii]

A crucial element within Whiggish commemoration is what Svetlana Boym describes as restorative nostalgia[ix] – that is, the restoration of origins (the rose-tinted framing of Storey as some kind of genial, avuncular everyman in Finucane and Gibney) and the cultivation of solidarity through conspiracy thinking (the framing that critics were ‘political point-scoring’)[x].

Boym argues that the restorative nostalgic focuses on the wish to return to some Edenic homeland where life was uncomplicated and society undifferentiated and unified. Conspiracy thinking is never far away from this sensibility: it functions at an ideological level, defining the world and removing contestable ideas, levelling out meaning so that it can be easily shared.

For Boym, this kind of conspiracy theorizing is linked to paranoid thinking. The point was previously intuited by Smiley: the apparent greatness of Karla had been based on an outworking of paranoia that suspected everything and everyone. The paranoid political community is self-referential, unaware and unconcerned about the optics of its actions, words or policies to others.

Paying close attention to the ‘Why now?’ question suggests that there have been any number of disconnects: it is unprecedented that a quiet family-centred funeral could not have been held for Storey, who apparently died in England after unsuccessful lung transplant surgery.

But Storey also represented something else for Provisional republicans: the hyper-real nature of the funeral simply drew attention to the obvious disconnects that continue to rupture the movement.

Necessary Nostalgia

The Whiggish impulse towards nostalgic anaesthetics is not exclusive to Provisional republicanism. Recent academic appraisals on the career of John Hume, for instance, ignored the ruptures that Hume’s courtship of Gerry Adams in the aftermath of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement caused between ‘constitutional’ nationalism and the Ulster Unionists, and within Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party itself. Ed Moloney pointed out that rather than Hume guiding Adams, Hume had effectively been ‘played’ by republicans in opening another front in their campaign for a united Ireland.[xi]

In urging readers to ‘honour [Hume] by not sentimentalizing him’, Brendan O’Leary – one of several academics to eulogise Hume in the Irish Times – would surely agree with the objective of the Writing the ‘Troubles’ Blog to reflect critically on Irish history.[xii] O’Leary (and the other academic eulogists, one of whom thanks god for Hume)  ignores the moral and chronological disconnects that are clear in Hume’s career, however. For instance, O’Leary reiterates the Hume-as-architect-of-peace narrative and gives it additional saccharine and nostalgic notes: ‘[Hume’s] recurrent bravery, never better illustrated than in opening the doors that enabled Sinn Féin and the IRA to walk toward peace’.[xiii]

Keith Lowe, when writing about the need to mythologize the past, stated that the point of nostalgia is to create an ‘illusion of unity’.[xiv] Writing about the need for amnesia in the aftermath of World War II, Lowe points out that critical reflection of what occurred in the recent past is much more dangerous than easily digestible morality tales – or even wilful forgetting. Adorno recognized the point: ‘in the house of the hangman one should not speak of the noose, otherwise one might seem to harbor resentment’.[xv] Still, critical reflection on the past is never more necessary than when illusory unity is conjured.

[i] Moriarty, Gerry, ‘Bobby Storey: The IRA’s planner and enforcer who stayed in the shadows’, Irish Times, 30 June 2020; available at https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/bobby-storey-the-ira-s-planner-and-enforcer-who-stayed-in-the-shadows-1.4292981, accessed 18 August 2020.

[ii] Dudley Edwards, Ruth, ‘Bobby Storey: A violent thug who played role in the collapse of Stormont on three occasions’, 29 June 2020; available at https://www.ruthdudleyedwards.co.uk/2020/06/bobby-storey-a-violent-thug-who-played-role-in-the-collapse-of-stormont-on-three-occasions/, accessed on 18 August 2020.

[iii] McDowell, Michael, ‘Storey funeral highlights fundamental problems with Sinn Féin’, Irish Times, 8 July 2020; available at https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/storey-funeral-highlights-fundamental-problems-with-sinn-f%C3%A9in-1.4298524, accessed on 18 August  2020.

[iv] Fealty, Mick, ‘Assembly debate on the Storey debacle reveals a deeply rooted inequality-under-the-law problem’, Slugger O’Toole 8 July 2020; available at https://sluggerotoole.com/2020/07/08/assembly-debate-on-the-storey-debacle-reveals-a-deeply-rooted-inequality-under-the-law-problem/, accessed on 18 August 2020.

[v] BBC Online, ‘Bobby Storey: Belfast City Council votes for independent inquiry into cremation’, 10 July 2020; available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-53354519, accessed on 18 August 2020.

[vi] Scull, Maggie, ‘The troublesome world of paramilitary funerals’, RTÉ Online, Brainstorm, 8 July 2020; available at https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2020/0708/1151996-northern-ireland-paramilitary-funerals-troubles-bobby-storey-provisional-ira/, accessed on 18 August 2020.

[vii] le Carré, John, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Penguin, 2018 [1974]), p.235.

[viii] See https://twitter.com/johnfinucane/status/1274714300968566785; accessed on 18 August 2020.

[ix] Boym, Svetlana, The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, 2001).

[x] BBC Online, ‘Bobby Storey funeral: O’Neill says critics are “point-scoring”’, 1 July 2020; available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-53246224, accessed on 18 August 2020.

[xi] Moloney, Ed, ‘Putting John Hume’s peace process role into perspective’, The Broken Elbow, 5 August 2020; available at https://thebrokenelbow.com/2020/08/05/putting-john-humes-peace-process-role-into-perspective/, accessed on 18 August 2020.

[xii] See  https://writingthetroublesweb.wordpress.com/about/, accessed on 18 August 2020.

[xiii] Doyle, Martin, ‘Historians pay tribute: “Today we live in John Hume’s Ireland, and thank God for that”’, Irish Times, 4 August 2020; available at https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/historians-pay-tribute-today-we-live-in-john-hume-s-ireland-and-thank-god-for-that-1.4321671, accessed on 18 August 2020.

[xiv] Lowe, Keith, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (Penguin, 2013), p.139.

[xv] Adorno, Theodor, ‘The meaning of working through the past’, [1959], at Communists in Situ; available at https://cominsitu.wordpress.com/2019/08/07/the-meaning-of-working-through-the-past-adorno-1959/, accessed on 18 August 2020.

(Image: Bobby Storey contributes to a 2012 conference, Sinn Féin Flickr Account)

Dr Cillian McGrattan lectures in politics at Ulster University. He has published over twenty journal articles that address themes of conflict and conflict resolution, with Northern Ireland as his focus. His most recent books are The Politics of Trauma and Peacebuilding: Lessons from Northern Ireland (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016) and Sunningdale and the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike: The Struggle for Democracy in Northern Ireland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017) (co-edited with David McCann).

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