Crisis an exercise in anger management for Sinn Féin

Posted By: January 19, 2017

Newton Emerson.Irish News. Belfast. Thursday, January 19, 2017.

The first slogan Sinn Féin has unveiled for the upcoming election is: “Don’t get angry, get even!”

This has appeared across social media from the party’s central and constituency accounts. At the time of writing it has yet to appear on billboards and posters – perhaps it is only aimed at an online audience, the angriest audience of all.

Still, the unusually gauche wording reflects how the present crisis has become an anger management problem for Sinn Féin.

Collapsing the executive was a decision forced on it by the outrage of its members and supporters.

Now the party leadership has to ride that wave of anger to the polls, yet make the wave subside during talks and recede before everyone is washed back up at Stormont again.

Anger may be useful in motivating voters, as long as no angrier party comes along – although each ballot is worth the same no matter how furiously it is marked, and as Gerry Adams pointed out bluntly this week: “there are more unionists than Republicans.”

Anger may also be useful at the start of talks, to demonstrate opening positions. But after that, it becomes an increasing liability to compromise.

Anger in government is of no use whatsoever. It is not a policy, as the old saying goes, while in a power-sharing system it is actively counter-productive. Angry people are harder to make deals with, and your own angry people are harder to sell deals to. What has 20 years of foot-stomping about the Parades Commission achieved for Unionists, for example, other than making them look impotent and ridiculous?

Republicans may be justified in their present anger, and they may even have some cross-community sympathy, at least regarding RHI and the conduct of the DUP. But as anger fails to deliver, it will soon make them look impotent too.

Sinn Féin has cited every grievance it can think of ahead of talks, not just because this is its standard negotiating tactic but because crashing the executive over Arlene Foster’s petulance could seem like a comparable act of petulance a few months from now.

The First Minister’s behavior may have crystallized a decade of Republican frustration and epitomized a sense of unequal treatment, but it remains a vague point on which to hang the fate of devolution.

What would be the goal of entering talks on this basis? Equality by means of a nicer Unionist leader or the tantrum continues?

The longer Sinn Féin’s base stays angry, the more Unionists are going to think, in the words of John O’Dowd, ‘so what?’

Everyone in Northern Ireland is always quite angry anyway.

“Getting even,” means getting back to an even temper, so that realistic aims can be patiently pursued.

Sinn Féin has certainly judged that this means returning to Stormont. It is presenting March’s vote as an election to a negotiation, and where else could that be heading but back up the hill? Republicans hardly want direct rule, although they may stomach a spell of it for an Irish language act or same-sex marriage legislation. Joint authority is a fairy tale.

But can the wave of Republican and wider Nationalist anger be controlled? This would be difficult to manage even without the driving factor of Brexit, which is completely beyond Sinn Féin’s control.

We live in an age when anger is easily communicated and just as easily over-emphasized.

At the time of the Good Friday Agreement, the only outlets for the permanently enraged in Northern Ireland were Talkback and the letters pages of the three daily newspapers. Now our entire political class lives among the livid, minute by minute. Elected representatives scroll through Twitter and Facebook in the Assembly chamber – they were at it on Monday as Stormont collapsed, visible on video footage, reacting and responding in a feverish feedback loop.

Sinn Féin is particularly vulnerable to this – no other party in Ireland has anything like its online antagonists, although the SNP in Scotland does, suggesting this may be innate to obstructed Nationalism.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has pointed to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as cases of anger leading to unexpected results. He implies this means a possible breakthrough for his party, although anger is unlikely to surprise us with a shift to the relative center. Far likelier is rage running to extremes.

David Cameron thought he could defuse a little anger with a referendum, and maybe even make use of it along the way.

Is Gerry Adams making the same mistake?