Do ‘Appeals for Calm’ work?

8th April 2021

Another evening of disturbances in Northern Ireland.

And so another round of ‘appeals for calm’.

Of course: such a call is the responsible thing to do – and nothing in this post should be taken to gainsay this.

But do such appeals actually work?

Does this – almost ritualistic – reflexive speech act ever have the intended effect?

And if so, how?


A cynic may contest that one function of ‘appealing for calm’ is to just give something ‘community leaders’ something to say and do – a gesture as empty and meaningless as ‘thoughts and prayers’.

As such there could almost be a circular definition – a ‘community leader’ is the person who ‘appeals for calm’, and ‘appealing for calm’, is what a ‘community leader’ does – thereby a ‘community leader appealing for calm’ is almost a tautology.


But such cynicism may be misplaced, for there appear to be many examples of appeals for calm that have had efficacy:

And from my home city of Birmingham:


So there are historical instances where the ‘appeal for calm’ seems to have had the intended political and social effect – though of course there may be other features present.

But the ‘appeal for calm’ has another important function.

And this is that it will be significant when the expected speech act is not made by a particular individual.

Here we have an example from just three months ago:

Silence as a signal.

As so often with language and politics, it can be more important when certain words and phrases are not used than when they are.

This is true not only for formal texts such as laws, but also for rhetorical acts in certain situations.

An ‘appeal for calm’ thereby might or might not work – but a failure or obvious refusal to ‘appeal for calm’ can have unwelcome consequences.

Appealing for calm is therefore an important piece of political behaviour – both for what it can achieve and also for what may happen if the appeal is not made.

Words matter, but so does silence.


Thank you for reading this post on this daily law and policy blog.

If you value this free-to-read post, and the independent legal and policy commentary this blog and my Twitter feed provides for both you and others – please do support through the Paypal box above, or become a Patreon subscriber.


You can also subscribe for each post to be sent by email at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).


Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.


19 thoughts on “Do ‘Appeals for Calm’ work?”

  1. The effectiveness of the speech act of an appeal for calm may well depend upon hope and trust – hope that the present evil will be rectified and trust that the person making the appeal will be effective in finding ways of rectifying the evil.

    Can these conditions be present in Northern Ireland? I suggest that they were at the time of the Good Friday Agreement. The creation of citizenship of the European Union under the Maastricht Treaty enabled those who saw themselves as citizens of an Ireland that had been wrongly divided to be fellow citizens of an entity to which the Republic belonged. This meant that Sinn Fein could in good conscience rule out violence and that in turn helped bring hope that unionists would not be forced to fight fire with fire.

    Brexit has removed this common citizenship.

    The Northern Ireland Protocol has caused unionists to fear that they will be forced into citizenship of a state to which they do not believe that they belong. It is certainly difficult to see how the Protocol can be removed even if operational improvements can be made.

    Unionist fear can only be increased by such Conservative politicians as Rees Mogg saying that a 52-48 vote for unification would be sufficient. They may also has noticed that some parts of the British state are already preparing for the end of the UK: for example the FCA’s Gabriel system will not accept UK as a country in which an institution is located – it only accepts GB. The GFA contains no precise provisions for a referendum and it is completely incredible that any of the British or Irish participants envisaged a referendum before sufficient trust had been built for it to be a ratification mechanism for a generally acceptable unification.

    Trust has also been eroded. Leaving aside exactly what Boris Johnson said about customs requirements, he certainly failed to spell out what he had agreed to; the Protocol might have been less threatening to the core values of unionists if he had made a big effort to sell it as the least evil. But that is not the style of out boosterist PM. The situation was made a great deal worse by appointing an onanist like Brandon Lewis Northern Ireland Secretary. The situation called for a highly experienced and competent minister.

    1. Appeals for calm, and thoughts and prayers, may simply be performative, but words can have consequences.

      As with the corrosive influence of Trump in the US, trust has been eroded by the lies of the UK’s Prime Minister (he refuses to correct himself, so his false utterances can’t be seen as accidental mistakes). On the radio at the weekend, one of his supporters praised his undoubted verbal dexterity and skill at communicating directly to the audience, while acknowledging that Johnson exaggerates and embroiders, and is poor on the detail – that is, he gets things wrong and makes things up, and really does not care what he says or does as long as it serves him for the instant. Just like a clown or a stand-up comedian. It is comic, or tragic, or maybe both?

      It reminded me of the comment made about the mistake of some Democrats in taking Trump literally but not seriously, when he should have been taken seriously but not literally.

      It may be that “parts of the British state are already preparing for the end of the UK” – and I hope there are contingency plans in Whitehall and elsewhere for this and other possibilities – but basing that claim on a technical limitation built into the FCA’s software seems a little overblown.

      We don’t need a conspiracy theory around preparations for the splitting of the UK to explain that. Perhaps they are simply using country codes from ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 – an internationally agreed standard in which the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is allocated the two letters “GB” (the letters “UK” are reserved for the UK too: Ukraine has to use “UA”, and Guinea-Bissau has to use “GW”; conversely, the UK uses “.uk” as its country code top-level domain on the Internet, but “.gb” is reserved for us too). Similarly, the three letter code for the UK under ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 is “GBR” (like the UK uses at the Olympics, although we tried out “GBI” once and “GRB” a few times before that).

      You might have a slightly stronger basis for making that claim by reference to the special “XI” EORI code that the UK uses for Northern Ireland, although that is required as a practical matter due to the Protocol.

      The GFA does not set out precise mechanisms for a border poll, no; but I would not expect it to, just as Article 50 did not specify a mechanism for the Brexit vote: that would be a matter for domestic law in each state, and then implementation.

      The prospect of Irish reunification has been acknowledged in UK legislation since at least section 1(2) of the Ireland Act 1949 accepted that Northern Ireland could cease to be part of the UK with the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland. There has been a mechanism for a border poll in Northern Ireland since at least the Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Act 1972 and the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 (later replaced by the Northern Ireland Act 1998).

      The south would have to vote in favour too – it should not be taken for granted, and it would be somewhat ironic if Northern Ireland were to vote for reunification but the south voted against – but I trust the Irish government knows how to run such constitutionally significant referendums rather better than the UK government does.

      1. Current events in Northern Ireland could dissuade the southern electorate from wanting a United Ireland or alternatively could prove an inoculation.

        Loyalist rioting in the event of a UI referendum now looks a strong likelihood. Unionist / loyalist buy-in to the GFA (such as it was, the DUP never supported it) self-evidently was no more than a way of keeping nationalists quiet by promising a democratic decision that they never intended to honour if it went against them. The fact that the primary constituency in which this democratic decision would take place (the UK province of Northern Ireland) has boundaries drawn to facilitate unionism makes it particularly aggravating that unionists are unlikely to respect its decision.

        I say Northern Ireland is the primary constituency. Of course the secondary one, no less important to the outcome, is the Republic. As a citizen of the latter, it seems to me that loyalist violence now will prove an inoculant. While my fellow citizens know full well that incorporating northern unionism into our relatively happy and successful little state could be disruptive, I doubt very much that the southern electorate would close the door on our northern nationalist brethren if they manage to get a majority in NI to agree to unite with us.

  2. A Tweet of yesterday evening from Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party:

    “This is not protest. This is vandalism and attempted murder. These actions do not represent unionism or loyalism. They are an embarrassment to Northern Ireland and only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Fein.

    My thoughts are with the bus driver.”

    I am inclined to think a DUP staffer Tweeted that, but, if there is a lesson to be learnt from the unfortunate, unhelpful language, as with the staff officers who fixed up for Starmer to go to the Jesus House and then took two days to take down the video of the visit, senior politicians need to get a lot better at hiring staff and employing staff at anty time, let alone times like these.

  3. Some appeals to be calm are simply going through the motions, so that one person/group/etc can say that they dd appeal for calm. In that sense they are propaganda and diversion. This of course is more plausible when the distance between the “do-ers” of the naughtiness and the “appealer” is distant. In the current goings on in NI the distance has three or four layers of onion (Con DUP para/gang) each wafer thin*. Which is often the case in many such situations around the world where people/groups are very cynical in their behaviour.

    * You can insert some other wafers if you wish.

  4. Don’t think the organised criminal provocateurs of these disturbances want calm. Reasonable folk appealing for it do give them press space. For the good of democracy, I guess we must appeal to better natures of electors. …..While quietly targeting the crims. Try to beat them at their game and at ours.

    1. “Meanwhile in Co Antrim, a recent series of drug seizures targeting the South East Antrim UDA, a renegade faction of the main grouping believed to have been behind some of the weekend disturbances, have caused particular ill-feeling towards police.”

      It must be very difficult, being a socially conservative Loyalist supporter (or leader of the DUP) in Northern Ireland when your violent, self appointed, gun toting guardians, are selling drugs to your kids?

  5. The examples you cite are effective because the individuals involved had a moral authority. In the current context, Johnson has no such moral authority since his recklessness at pursuing Brexit at any cost (and for his own personal advantage) negate any moral autority that his position as PM would afford him. The same can be said of the noxious Ms Foster – a cynic might imagine that she supported Brexit (over the majority will of the Northern Irish people) knowing that it would shatter the sense of community that has flourished since the Good Friday accords and the temptation it fosters (no pun intended) towards reunification. These are people warned not to play with matches who are feining horror at the conflagration they started.

    1. A common thread between Johnson, Foster and indeed the GOP in America is that politicians who have pandered to an ill-informed constituency get so locked in that they cannot repudiate their false narrative at risk of losing their careers (or worse).

      Reading comments on the NI discussion website it is striking how generally poor the written English of NI loyalist commentators is. These people have an historic expectation of privilege as a result of what tribe they belong to and are terrified of simple equality, as they know they would sink to the bottom of any meritocracy. It’s no wonder they echo the GOP’s hatred of “wokeness” with its principles of cherishing everybody equally.

      1. Did you really mean “loyalist”, or just “unionist”? “Loyalist” today in NI means “supporters of criminal paramilitaries”, and is a word intended as a contrast to mainstream “unionism”, such as the DUP. I doubt SOT would allow actual loyalist commentary.

        When words are used with careful meanings, many people are going to miss the implication. On the BBC News the other day, just before we saw Arlene Foster denouncing the violence, we saw an interview with someone explaining the violence was being stirred up by “loyalist politicians”. I think many people watching that would erroneously have concluded the BBC had deliberately implied that AF was being hypocritical. I think the BBC should have been a bit more careful.

        1. “Did you really mean “loyalist”, or just “unionist”? “Loyalist” today in NI means “supporters of criminal paramilitaries”, and is a word intended as a contrast to mainstream “unionism”, such as the DUP. I doubt SOT would allow actual loyalist commentary.”

          I don’t agree with your distinction and I doubt many on Slugger would either. As it happens they had some BTL debate about this recently. The consensus appeared to be that unionism and loyalism are middle class and working class versions of the same thing. Many would regard the DUP as loyalist (because much of their support is working class) without that being in any way a judgement about criminality.

          I used “loyalists” in my comment because it is loyalist “simple folk” who are noticeably less well educated than their nationalist equivalents, and consequently rely on membership of a tribe (Imperial Britain as they see it) to hold privilege over the uncivilised natives. This position is if anything reinforced by their religious fundamentalism which not only disconnects them from science (denial of dinosaurs and Darwin for example) but also leads them to flock to whatever charismatic leader can use Biblical language to justify their prejudices (“the Pope is the Anti-Christ” etc) regarding their nationalist neighbours.

          1. It’s bad enough when you have to use words carefully. It is even worse when people use them with different meanings.

            The meaning I describe is not “my” meaning, it is a meaning in common use, that I can source. It is plainly what the BBC meant the other day.

            Here is an academic source of that meaning:
            “The term in Northern Ireland context is used by many commentators to imply that the person gives tacit or actual support the use of force by paramilitary groups to ‘defend the union’ with Britain.”

            Dubious source, but one many people would use:
            “Historically, the terms ‘unionist’ and ‘loyalist’ were often interchangeable, but since the beginning of the Troubles, ‘loyalist’ is usually used when referring to paramilitary unionism.”

            In sum, in vocab I understood until just now, you meant “unionist”, but with some additional nuance that passed me by until you explained.

    2. The examples you cite are effective because the individuals involved had a moral authority.

      …Is the correct answer. Appeals for calm work if – and only if – the person appealing has the respect and trust of those being appealed to.

      It’s that simple, really.

  6. It is not necessarily empty and meaningless to say “thoughts and prayers”. It is disappointing that the phrase has been devalued because we have seen it used less than whole-heartedly by some individuals.

    1. Perhaps it is my atheistic bias, but it strikes me as a meaningless phrase – and if it is only my bias, I apologise

      1. It’s not your bias, David – the phrase itself is a self-evidently meaningless platitude: thinking about someone (whatever that means in practice) – much less praying for them – has never helped anyone.

  7. I think some people can be blase and even contemptuous of people referred to as “community leaders”. Many of these people find themselves in this position with very little volition of their own and once they have become known the police tend to call on them to defuse potentially violent situations.
    Inevitably they become seen as co-opted.
    Speaking to a crowd gathered to protest, even when speaking directly on behalf of the family of the deceased, is dangerous and can be very frightening.

  8. Whole heartedly agree. Signalling, for this is what it is, by whatever means, is extremely important and all have consequences.

    A slow response, no response, a flag lowered, a flag lowered eventually, a non-answer, a repeat of a lie, the bare faced denial, the pathetic excuse… they all do the work as intended.

    The appropriate and timely calling for calm is a well intended response, unless it comes from those who knew their actions would inflame a situation they now wish to go away.

    We no-longer live in a politically naive age. These tricks and tactics are well rehearsed. No one should ever pretend they are anything but deliberate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.