How to begin: Learning to love (or at least like) the background section

By Sara Dybris McQuaid

Whenever we write articles and chapters about Northern Ireland, we usually have to preface them with the “context section”: some historical background, some sketching of Northern Ireland as a case of conflict. Those few sentences that begin to frame the ‘Troubles’ are probably amongst the most tortuous, least loved sentences that I ever write.

They are tortuous, because they attempt to capture an impossibly multitudinous narrative arc, and so prompt endless questions: When to begin and end, and how to order and select events in between these chosen points? (since periodization and chronologies always carry their own hypotheses); What are the key contradictions to include? (i.e. religion, resources, rights, nationality, class); How best to weigh these against each other and potentially also allow for other questions of difference and consequence (i.e. gender, race, age)? What groups of antagonists to introduce and how to avoid creating false symmetries within and between them? (i.e. eschewing the short hand of Protestants/unionists/loyalists and Catholics/nationalists/republicans); What existing and emerging patterns of interaction and infrastructures to outline? And, of course, how to avoid confining the conflict to a myopic and parochial framework? The way we deal with these questions are fundamentally analytical and interpretive choices, that precedes what we consider to be the main and more elaborate argument of our work.

They are among the least loved, because they feel like the hoop jumping before you can get to the meat of the argument, and because they always seem to echo with all the narratives and angles one has left out. They are hard to write and seldom feel rewarding. It is tempting, then, to reuse previous framings. How did I put it last time? But I find that this can hobble my thinking when I am trying to make a new argument.

And perhaps this all does an injustice to the background section. The short paragraphs positioned to do this heavy lifting are at once a creative and critical exercise and could be consciously treated as such. This is not least because, although it may not always appear right at the start of a text, a ‘background section’ always constitutes the beginning of analysis, establishing key dynamics and actors relevant for the argument. It is not a preceding hoop but rather a part of the analysis itself. A beginning, as Edward Said wrote, is its own method ‘[…] a first step in the intentional production of meaning and the production of difference […] It authorizes subsequent texts―it both enables them and limits what is acceptable’.

Writing a background section about the ‘Troubles’, however, poses particular problems. When organizing historical events into a brief narrative, we have to negotiate the trip wires suspended by the deep seated and competing master plots of unionism and nationalism. Part of the difficulty in fashioning a satisfactory overarching narrative is of course that the incommensurability of narratives has both framed and fuelled the conflict itself. Indeed, this dynamic has not been curtailed or substantially replaced in the peace process, even if the versions of unionism and nationalism have been transformed. At the same time, narratives that primarily aspire to transcend or bridge these divisions risk glossing over important and dynamic differences or lose sight of the wider British-Irish relations in which the conflict is nested.

However, I find temporality to be one of the main complications. Conceptualising and capturing conflict in narrative must entail some form of dividing it into parts or phases which mark beginnings, ends and everything in between. Freytag’s classic storytelling model breaks narratives into five stages: Exposition; Rising action; Climax; Falling action; Resolution. Many models of conflict escalation employ a similar structural approach, albeit with more relational turning points: e.g. difference; contradiction; polarization; violence; war; ceasefire; agreement; normalisation; reconciliation (Ramsbotham et al. 2016). But this kind of periodisation is often problematic.

As somebody who is doing research on ‘post-agreement’ Northern Ireland, the challenge for me is how to structure a narrative which does not seal off conflict within a particular period, but recognizes it as a critical continuity. Not only do interpretations of the causes, contexts and patterns of violence in Northern Ireland remain divided and divisive – the meaning of the peace process and the peace agreement itself continues to be contested, with little narrative consensus underpinning the length and destination of the transition it marks. Post-agreement governance in Northern Ireland is based on a minimal commitment to a shared political community with constituencies which remain in transit towards radically different constitutional futures. As such, Northern Ireland is neither ‘post-transition’ nor ‘post-conflict’, and so any narrative of ‘the Troubles’ in my work needs to pave the way for making sense of conflict beyond the end of violence (or perhaps, rather, the shifting shapes of violence) and question the ‘politics of the post’. A synopsis of conflict in Northern Ireland, which ignores the political economy of governance in the peace process since 1998, for example, won’t help explain why Brexit seemed like a sensible proposition for many unionists in 2016.

An important limitation of what we might call pocket ‘plot models’ of conflict, which organize events along lines of escalation and de-escalation, is that they risk presenting a too linear and even progression of life and times. People and places do not enter into, experience and come out of conflict at the same pace. We know that certain classes and communities participated in, lived through, and are living down a particularly violent version of the ‘Troubles’. Many have yet to feel the impact of the so-called peace dividend. We also know that ‘war-time’ is gendered in terms of inclusion and exclusion, where women may become, at different stages, the object of political elites’ anxieties and ambitions. These timelines of escalation, culmination and reconciliation can be significantly different from official and established narratives of progression.

So how do we avoid the path dependence of master plots, the unreflective connections of events and experiences in periodisations, and totalizing representations? How do we introduce complexity and nuance while still linking up to recognisable overarching trajectories of conflict? What kind of language and thought would better enable this manoeuvre? (and here I am not even touching upon or engaging with the challenges of nomenclature). Put differently, what are the principal aspects of critical awareness that we can put to our uses of the past in the historical background section of our research? The answers to these questions are of course partly given by disciplines, materials, and levels of analysis. For me, it is attempting to articulate and foreground the tensions between official and vernacular plot lines of peace and conflict in Northern Ireland as they continue to unfold and intersect. In all of this, I am trying (if not always succeeding) to find a way to love the background section more. But I have yet to find a way to keep it short!

(Image: © Sara Dybris McQuaid)

Sara Dybris McQuaid is Associate Professor in British and Irish History, Society and Culture at Aarhus University. She is a founding member and core research partner in Centre for Resolution of International Conflicts at University of Copenhagen and the Danish representative on the managing committee of the EU COST action Slow Memory: Transformative Practices for Times of Uneven and Accelerating Change. Her research pivots around how collectives remember, forget and archive their past, particularly as part of conflict and peacebuilding processes. She has published particularly on the peace process and ‘post-conflict’ in Northern Ireland and is currently working on dynamics of ‘multi-level memory governance’ and ‘Administrations of Memory’. Some recent publications include a special issue on ‘Administrations of Memory: Transcending the Nation and Bringing Back the State in Memory Studies’ (Co-editor Sarah Gensburger) International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 32,2 (2019) and ‘Historical Dialogues: Collective Memory Work and the (dis)Continuation of Conflicts’ Kritika Kultura (2019).

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