Using Political Memoir to Study the Conflictual Past in Northern Ireland

By Stephen Hopkins

The boom in memoir-writing by protagonists of ‘the Troubles’ may no longer be as evident as it was in the decade after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was signed, but it is still the case that political actors are tempted to commit their experiences and insights to print and publishers continue to believe there is a market, both popular and academic, for such writing. In terms of the variety of sub-genres that we can identify under the broad rubric of ‘political memoir’, there are a number of significant works that have recently been published, or are forthcoming. For example, among constitutional politicians, in 2019 there was the long-awaited memoir of former Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) deputy leader, and short-lived Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive (1999-2001), Seamus Mallon.[i] Former Alliance Party MLA, Anna Lo, has also written a memoir from the unusual perspective of an ‘outsider’ in the bi-communal, political straitjacket of Northern Irish political life.[ii] Among former paramilitaries, from the Republican movement, Patrick Magee’s memoir of his post-Brighton bombing trajectory will be published in early 2021.[iii] From the loyalist viewpoint, Billy Hutchinson (former member of the Ulster Volunteer Force and leader of the Progressive Unionist Party) will, after a previous memoir fell through, publish his story in November 2020.[iv] There are many other authors who could be listed, including many narratives that could be classified as belonging to the ‘true crime’ genre (the memories of ‘informers’ or agents and security force personnel form a staple of certain publishers’ schedules).    

In an earlier work on the subject,[v] I argued that, in the continued absence of an overarching process for ‘contending with the past’,[vi] memoir-writing can, on occasion, provide a means for approaching the complex legacy questions of truth, justice, reconciliation and commemoration. Admittedly, the insights which can be gleaned from reading and studying such literature are likely to be ad hoc and unstructured; they may not provide the formal or official narrative of conflict that an institutional mechanism (such as a Truth Commission) arguably can offer. It is also the case that such writing can often serve to reinforce pre-existing conflict-era narratives, maintaining the integrity of the ‘old’ fight on the battlefield of memory politics. As Sebastiaan Faber has argued in a different context, memoir can be interpreted as ‘part of what one could call a rhetorical economy, a battle for narrative hegemony in the public sphere […]’.[vii] In short, post-conflict memoirists can often appear to be ‘remembering at’ each other (in Edna Longley’s phrase), rather than seeking to understand each other’s positions.[viii] Their memoirs may be characterised as ‘didactic entries’ in an ongoing political dispute, with no quarter given to alternative memories or narratives.[ix]

However, my argument is that memoir-writing can sometimes instigate productive interactions between diverse (ex-) protagonists, as part of a process of critical self-reflection regarding the nature of the conflict, and the character of the individual’s contribution to its narrative re-telling. This may be particularly so when the memoirist is someone who embodies or is emblematic of a broad political constituency, as in the case of political (and perhaps on some occasions, paramilitary) leaders. Of course, there is always the danger of an instrumentalisation of an individual life-story for perceived political gains, but on the other hand, truthful accounting and the trustworthiness of the story presented are powerful ammunition. For historians or political scientists, therefore, memoir may need to be treated with appropriate caution, and supplemented with recourse to documentary and archival sources. Nevertheless, memoir should not be dismissed as merely a ‘branch of poetics and fiction – metaphors of self, novels of self-exploration.’[x]  At their best, memoirs can offer a platform for scrutinising and challenging some of the sclerotic, rehashed narratives that merely serve as a restatement of mono-cultural ‘verities’ about the conflict. Those authors who are willing to subject their own personal and communal shibboleths to such scrutiny may be rare, but they can encourage what Paul Arthur referred to as the ‘gentle art of reperceiving’ the conflict.[xi]           

To return briefly to Seamus Mallon, his book illustrated at least two important themes in the study of political memoir. First, it was written and published at the end of a long life, less than a year before his death, aged 83, in January 2020. As has been argued in relation to one of Mallon’s great antagonists, former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams (who published his first full-length volume of memoir at the tender age of 48): ‘political autobiographies should be written when the hurly-burly’s done. They should tell a story whose ending is known, reflect on something that has actually been achieved.’[xii] Second, Mallon’s memoir enters into dialogue, sometimes explicit but often implicit, with other narratives of this era; he includes a number of painful personal anecdotes, particularly of attending funerals of police officers or part-time soldiers in his largely Protestant locale in Co. Armagh. He is also willing to offer several character sketches of SDLP colleagues (his nuanced views regarding John Hume will be studied closely by future historians of the fractious relationship between the two crucial leadership figures in the party), as well as republican and unionist interlocutors. Mallon’s memoir movingly recalls the great emotional burden of living through the worst of the violence; he relives the pain of those times, both personally but also for the broader society. His memoir is a heartfelt plea for generosity of spirit, both in terms of how we should approach the divided past, but also the potential future relations on the island.[xiii] Illustrating the idea of memoir-writing as a space for such generosity, Mallon warns Irish nationalists that a ‘50% plus one’ vote for Irish unity (which may not be fanciful to imagine in the next decade or so) will not produce an ‘agreed Ireland’, but may in fact contribute to a ‘major resumption of violence.’[xiv] Instead, Mallon is attracted to some form of confederal approach to future governance, and envisages a new citizens’ assembly (similar to the Opsahl commission of the 1990s) to examine ways in which the fears and hopes of both communities can be accommodated. Whether or not one agrees with Mallon’s policy prescription, his memoir is a model of critical self-reflection about the past and thoughtful intervention regarding the present. It should be of genuine interest not just to academic readers, but to citizens concerned with Northern Ireland’s future prospects.

(Image: Tommy Dolan)     

[i] Seamus Mallon (with Andy Pollak), A Shared Home Place (Dublin: Lilliput, 2019).

[ii] Anna Lo, The Place I Call Home (Belfast: Blackstaff, 2016).

[iii] Patrick Magee, Where Grieving Begins: Building Bridges after the Brighton Bomb – A Memoir (London: Pluto, 2021 forthcoming).

[iv] Billy Hutchinson (with Gareth Mulvenna), My Life in Loyalism (Dublin: Merrion, 2020 forthcoming).

[v] Stephen Hopkins, The Politics of Memoir and the Northern Ireland Conflict (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013; new paperback edition, 2017).

[vi] Michael Newman suggests this phrase is better than ‘dealing with the past’, and I agree; see his Transitional Justice: Contending with the Past (Cambridge: Polity, 2019).

[vii] Sebastiaan Faber, Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War: History, Fiction, Photoraphy (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2018), 56.

[viii] Edna Longley, ‘Northern Ireland: Commemoration, Elegy, Forgetting’ in Ian McBride (ed.), History and Memory in Modern Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 231.

[ix] Ben Yagoda, Memoir: A History (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), 95.

[x] George Egerton, ‘The Anatomy of Political Memoir: Findings and Conclusions’, in G. Egerton (ed.), Political Memoir: Essays on the Politics of Memory (London: Frank Cass, 1994), 347.

[xi] Paul Arthur, ‘Conflict, Memory and Reconciliation’, in Marianne Elliott (ed.), The Long Road to Peace in Northern Ireland (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002), 147.

[xii] Fintan O’Toole, ‘The Premature Life of Gerry Adams’, Irish Times, 28 September 1996. After his memoir Before the Dawn (London: Heinemann and Dingle: Brandon, 1996) was published, Adams served another 22 years as SF President. See Stephen Hopkins, ‘The life history of an exemplary Provisional republican: Gerry Adams and the politics of biography’, Irish Political Studies 33 (2), 2018, 259-77.

[xiii] Mallon, op. cit., 176.

[xiv] Ibid., 152.

Dr Stephen Hopkins is Lecturer in Politics in the School of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester. His book, The Politics of Memoir and the Northern Ireland Conflict, was published in paperback (Liverpool, 2017). He is also the author of recent articles, including ‘Narratives of Irish Republican Hunger Strikes: The Politics of Memoir and the “Republican Family”, 1923 and 1981′ in The Irish Review No.55 (2020)‘Bobby Sands, Martyrdom and the Politics of Irish Republican Memory’, in Q. Outram and K. Laybourn (eds.), Secular Martyrdom in Britain and Ireland (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and ‘The life history of an exemplary Provisional republican: Gerry Adams and the politics of biography’Irish Political Studies 33 (2), 2018, 259-77. Stephen’s article, ‘The Politics of Apology and the Prospects for ‘Post-conflict’ Reconciliation: The Case of the Provisional Irish Republican Movement’, has just been published in the International Journal of Transitional Justice.


2 thoughts on “Using Political Memoir to Study the Conflictual Past in Northern Ireland

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  1. Strange, one book which was a bestseller 10 times on Amazon, numerous literary awards around the world, and critically acclaimed is missing from the list of political memoirs. My own memoir, On The Brinks, exposing the horrors of the H-Blocks as a Blanketman. A pity it was censored from the list.


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