Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Why Peter Robinson tried to tough it out over apology to Muslims

First Minister Peter Robinson

Now, how hard was that, Mr Robinson? Pretty hard, I imagine, for a man not exactly known for his sunny temper, collegiate manner and general willingness to please.

And it's true that Peter Robinson's public apology to local Muslim people for his rash and, frankly, bizarre comments in support of Pastor James McConnell may have been a little slow in coming.

But, when he finally got the words out, he managed to make it sound reasonably gracious – as political apologies go, anyway. It certainly wasn't as bad as Bill Clinton's weaselly effort after the Monica Lewinsky affair, when the former US President tried to apologise without even using the word "apology".

Mr Robinson delivered his mea culpa outside the Belfast Islamic Centre, flanked closely – very closely – on both sides by two senior Muslims.

I expect that this was a deliberate piece of choreography to underscore the newfound harmony and solidarity between Old Whitey and his Muslim chums, but unfortunately it looked a little bit like he'd been forcibly escorted from the premises.

The fact that junior minister Jonathan Bell was right behind him – chest puffed out, and wearing the expression of a pious bulldog – only served to underscore this impression. "Don't worry, chief," you could imagine him growling loyally, "I've got your back."

When it comes to public apologies the biggest cop-out is the use of the conditional term 'if'. "If I offended anyone with what I said, then I'm sorry"... you know the kind of thing. Apologies like this aren't worth the breath used to make them.

You're not really repentant, you're issuing a qualifier that deflects responsibility away from you and you're implying that the people you've annoyed are the ones with the problem, not you.

Mr Robinson steered perilously close to this position at the Islamic Centre. "I apologise to these gentlemen if anything that I said had caused them hurt," he began ominously, but luckily added: "And I can see that in many cases it has." Just in the nick of time there, Peter.

Loss of face is the primary concern for most politicians who find themselves in a tight spot like this and it's a particular worry in the aggressively masculinist context of Northern Ireland, where to give an inch on any issue casts instant doubt on your political virility.

No matter what, you can't be seen to cede ground. That's why Mr Robinson said he had apologised to the Muslim leaders "face to face, personally, man to man, the way it should be done". By putting it this way, mano a mano, he was propping up his red-blooded credentials as High Heid Yin of the Ulster people, something between Clint Eastwood and a silver-back gorilla.

Acting tough – and deflecting the shaming ignominy of being coerced into a public apology – was also, I suspect, the reason behind Mr Robinson's nonchalance about using the dread word 'sorry'.

It was no problem, he assured us. "A lot of people seem to think that sorry is a difficult word to use," said the First Minister. Not him, though: "I don't find it a difficult word to use."

Yeah, he's totally cool with that, always ready to hold up his hands whenever he's messed up. That's the kind of chilled guy he is, completely at ease and confident in himself.

Amusingly, though, Mr Robinson couldn't quite suppress his famous irascibility entirely. "I cannot spend the rest of my life apologising," he began petulantly, but again saved himself by adding that "what I can do is spend the rest of my life building the united community that I believe we want in Northern Ireland." Honestly, the whole thing was a masterclass in contained rage.

If Mr Robinson's expression of regret has gone some way towards reassuring Muslim people of their importance in this society, especially in the context of recent, appalling racist attacks, then it was worth making. But I'm still not convinced of the intrinsic value of the forced public apology.

The very fact that it's issued in response to outraged demand – not prompted by remorse, but wheeled out as a form of damage limitation – undermines its credibility.

Increasingly, too, we see demands for public apologies being used as a way to silence people whose views run contrary to the mainstream, or simply those we disagree with.

Whatever his motivation, Peter Robinson was right to say sorry. But the only apologies truly worth receiving are the ones that are freely given.

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