“Perhaps it’s time to rethink toughness or at least detach it from hardness…”

Alex Kane talks about the role of Omerta in Sinn Fein’s success. It’s a pejorative description (in common usage) which ties the party to the Tony Soprano end of  politics. So, the reasoning goes, there is no hope of clarity on the McKay-Bryson affair because everyone will stand to and keep quiet.

But there’s another side to success in politics, and that’s an anchor in a shared common purpose. It applies to most successful political parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP included. Some of the UK Labour party’s difficulties arise from the fact that the bonds of their particular belief (or story) are weakening.

David Brooks in the New York Times has some useful comments to make on the matter of toughness (as opposed to hardness or cynical detachment) in politics and in life in general…

Perhaps it’s time to rethink toughness or at least detach it from hardness. Being emotionally resilient is not some defensive posture. It’s not having some armor surrounding you so that nothing can hurt you.

The people we admire for being resilient are not hard; they are ardent. They have a fervent commitment to some cause, some ideal or some relationship. That higher yearning enables them to withstand setbacks, pain and betrayal.

Such people are, as they say in the martial arts world, strong like water. A blow might sink into them, and when it does they are profoundly affected by it. But they can absorb the blow because it’s short term while their natural shape is long term.


People are much stronger than they think they are when in pursuit of their telos, their purpose for living. As Nietzsche put it, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

In short, emotional fragility is not only caused by overprotective parenting. It’s also caused by anything that makes it harder for people to find their telos. It’s caused by the culture of modern psychology, which sometimes tries to talk about psychological traits in isolation from moral purposes.

It’s caused by the ethos of the modern university, which in the name of “critical thinking” encourages students to be detached and corrosively skeptical. It’s caused by the status code of modern meritocracy, which encourages people to pursue success symbols that they don’t actually desire.

We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is, when we haven’t thrown ourselves with abandon into a social role, when we haven’t committed ourselves to certain people, when we feel like a swimmer in an ocean with no edge.

If you really want people to be tough, make them idealistic for some cause, make them tender for some other person, make them committed to some worldview that puts today’s temporary pain in the context of a larger hope. [Emphasis added]

A sense of shared telos (Wikipedia here) is much closer to defining real strength within most political enterprises: not least because a strongly shared moral purpose is essential to political success. It is not (all of it) dependent on mistrust of strangers or the media, or indeed fear of retribution.

Or indeed, feeling impelled to lie when it becomes serious.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Nevin

    “If you really want people to be tough, make them idealistic for some cause, make them tender for some other person, make them committed to some worldview that puts today’s temporary pain in the context of a larger hope.” .. David Brooks

    How can this be applied to NI politics where, constitutionally, there’s not just a lack of common purpose but opposing purposes? In this setting, the idealism for a particular cause may well be linked to a lack of tenderness for those with different ideals.

    From time to time, I can generate a little short term common purpose when, say, a government agency organises a private meeting that coincides with, say, a full meeting of a local council. It simply involves passing the information to the various parties and promoting the meeting as a public forum.

  • mickfealty

    Good questions Nev. And ones we should keep looking for practical answers to, without ever losing sight of those longer term moral purposes.

    I believe there’s a lot more scope than our post conflict imaginations are serving up just now…

  • Nevin

    Mick, I’ve always been puzzled by the use of the ‘post-conflict’ term; it seems to owe more to the imagination than to reality. The intensity of the conflict dramatically reduced after 1994 but the eye-gouging/winding-up continues to ebb and flow. If anything, flip-flopping by the DUP and SF – eg so called ‘reaching out’ – has provided opportunities for even harder expressions of unionism and nationalism.

    “feeling impelled to lie when it becomes serious.”

    Those in authority can act morally, immorally and amorally. Perhaps some of the lies that I’ve drawn attention to have been amoral ‘lies of convenience’, lies issued to protect, say, the institutions. The consequences can lead to the pointing of the finger of blame at innocent parties.

  • mickfealty

    Not sure why you’re puzzled Nev. It’s a relative term, which describes a society with norms have been knocked out of shape by the abnormal circumstances of (in our case) a low level civil war, which involved the suspension of democracy and democratic norms of justice.

    The recovery is long, but probably longer than it needs be, because, I sense, some of the protagonists are struggling to create a set of long term objectives that allow them to engage with an emergent NI society hungry for new stories, or to use Brooks’ Aristotelian term, a new telos.

    Thus the endless recycling of stories from a conflict that’s aging at pace with the former protagonists. There’s more than a touch of the Ancient Mariner about the whole thing.

  • Nevin

    We must be using different dictionaries, Mick! ‘Post’ means ‘after’ and ‘conflict’ means ‘serious disagreement’, the ‘disagreement’ being about which state NI should be a member of. The ‘serious’ part has been dramatically reduced but the disagreement continues to fester.

    “an emergent NI society hungry for new stories”

    Can you illustrate? I’ve not detected any such hunger in the political realm.

  • mickfealty

    When do we say it, it means it’s over. It’s a bit of an angel on pinhead distinction. Our culture is a hangover from the fully engaged communal conflict (and crucially) the suspension of democratic oversight in this part of the UK state.

    That began to end with the Belfast Agreement, and it’s a bit of a non linear journey onwards from that with lots of little loop backs into some of the nightmare scenarios of the troubles years. But our lives are no longer defined by it.

    Going back to Brooks idea of tough replacing hard, hard = callous withdrawal of humanity from ‘the other’. War is binary = you die so I may live. Peace is something else altogether more challenging and demanding of creativity.

    When I say post conflict I use it to describe a broad reality, which does not precluded disruptions from our bloody past.

  • chrisjones2

    Well I have. The voters are uninspired and increasing numbers just walk away

  • Declan Doyle

    Aspiration, Goal, target, ambition ….. all the things that most Universities encourage their students to develop from day one. Politically, no party fulfills that criteria better than Sinn Fein. If other parties could harness that force we would surely have a very sparky political culture.

  • Theelk11

    Aye .. All of the above applies equally to the disciples of ISIS/DAESH
    And sure aren’t they the great bunch of lads..

  • Thomas Barber

    It also applies to every government in the world especially the British government, and their relationship with the state forces of their respective countries. If you think about it, every government in the world share the same philosophy ie dont wash your dirty laundry in public, keep it within the family, look after your own, etc etc etc, thats what the concept “In the interests of national security” was invented for, to cover up, to conceal, to evade justice the truth and the rule of law.

  • Theelk11

    And then sure they( whoever) lose a few through idealistic differences or the actions of the enemy, and they get sentimental..then they get vicious.
    Sentimentality breeds viciousness.

  • Nevin

    Post-insurgency is a more appropriate term to represent the dramatic decline in violence. The Athboy conspiracy and reaction post-1994 represented not a shift to peace but to attrition.

    I concur with your sentiment that ‘peace is something else altogether more challenging and demanding of creativity’. If I can borrow from the late Ray Davey, a settled constitutional arrangement would permit us to ‘work together for the good of all’. The ‘Save the Dal’ campaign represented a welcome short break in attrition.

  • Declan Doyle

    It also applies to anybody who has a passion in any field, nurses, doctors, teachers, counsellors …. are they all terrorists too ?

  • Zig70

    So many words asking why the leopard has spots. Pointless without a political alternative though for my money there is one. Should the why’s drill why the political alternative whithers. Some seems to be media driven, the alternative viewpoint isn’t given any air (why is that?) but maybe the real reason is there is no air in a Stormont that the od folk value. The only thing I see changing that is SF’s drive to demonstrate their governance credentials to the south may actually create that air and undo themselves. Though I wonder if this is a political attack from within on the move to a more establishment friendly politic.

  • Jollyraj

    How to explain, then, the dearth of talent coming through the ranks of Shinner youth?

  • billypilgrim1

    In any other party it’s called discipline. When it’s Sinn Féin, it’s omerta.

    The use of the term gives away the speaker’s prejudice.

  • Nevin

    “Alex Kane talks about the role of Omerta in Sinn Fein’s success. It’s a pejorative description”

    I misunderstood this reference; I presumed Alex used Omerta to describe SF behaviour as distinct from the behaviour of the DUP and SF. I found this in the cache:

    An SDLP representative told me, the day after the Daithi McKay story broke, that it was just a pity that the ‘Shinner culture of omerta’ would probably stop most of the story becoming public. Ironically, he was the same SDLP representative who had told me in March that his party was “going to be destroyed in the assembly election because some of our people are just too effing stupid to realise that it’s omerta that wins elections and not blabbing to the media about our own internal problems.”

    Alex takes a balanced approach to DUP and SF success at the ballot box:

    If truth be known the UUP and SDLP would love to run their party machines as ruthlessly and clinically as the DUP and SF do. There’s nothing like the fear of de-selection, demotion, expulsion or internal isolation to keep the rebels and assorted troublemakers at bay.

    He also refers to internal tensions in each of the big two. Perhaps the softer ‘reaching out’ lingo was designed to eat into the UUP and SDLP vote but it ran the risk of losing votes to those who appeared to be tougher on the constitutional question.

  • grumpy oul man

    Omerta is practiced on both sides here, SF do it yes but you don’t see the SDLP knee jerking to defend SF, however Unionists practice Omerta across the board.
    When for example LAD comes up ,unionists of all parties and none step up to defend loyalist and attack lad, very rarely do you see a unionist attacking another unionist for say, working with active criminals or lighting bonfires.
    On this site for example we have a poster who dates the start of the troubles to the IRA’s declaration but cheerfully ignores loyalist and state violence before this, I have never seen another unionist pull him up about this.
    How many unionists have you heard condemning the formation of Ulster resistance and how many admit that the old NI was a horrible place to be a catholic.
    No Omerta is a SF problem but they are not the only ones in NI to have the problem.