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Why 'sorry' seems the hardest of words to say for Northern Ireland's politicians

By Alex Kane

Published 23/09/2015

John McDonnell
John McDonnell

It may have taken John McDonnell 12 years, but at least he - belatedly - apologised for his pro-IRA remarks. How many Northern Ireland politicians can say the same (answers on a postcard please)?

In a world in which just about anything you have ever written or said can be sourced at the touch of a couple of buttons, there will be an increasing demand for reflection, recantation and apologies.

Indeed, as soon as anyone enters the public domain, particularly as an elected representative or minister, you can bet your bottom dollar his or her opponents will be hunched over Google tracking down any evidence of indiscretion, supposed extremism or stupidity.

In May 2003 John McDonnell - then a Labour backbencher with no expectation of promotion - said this: "It's about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA."

Shortly afterwards - and almost certainly after pressure from Labour's central command - he tried to repair the damage in an article for The Guardian: "Let me be clear, I abhor the killing of innocent human beings. My argument was that republicans had the right to honour those who had brought about this process of negotiation which had led to peace. Having achieved this central objective now it was time to move on."

But it still looked as though he was praising those, like Bobby Sands, who had played a part in the "armed struggle".

Roll on 12 years and McDonnell - now, much to his own surprise, shadow Chancellor - is haunted again by those comments. And this time he went for an apology: "I accept it was a mistake to use those words, but actually if it contributed towards saving one life, or preventing someone else being maimed, it was worth doing because we did hold on to the process. There was a risk of the republican movement splitting, and some continuing with the armed process. If I gave offence, and I clearly have, from the bottom of my heart I apologise."

The reaction was swift, albeit mixed. Most of the people who objected to his original comments rejected his apology. Actually, many of them ridiculed it and said that he was trying, wrongly, to claim responsibility for saving the peace process.

Others said that all he was doing was apologising for giving offence rather than apologising for the words themselves.

And some thought that he didn't mean a word of it and was just "reading out" a form of words prepared by party advisers. In fairness many others believed that his apology was sincere and should be accepted as such.

Should he have made an apology? Did he do more damage than good with it? Did he make himself look like a hypocrite? If he hadn't made it, would the issue have done him any long-term political damage?

Those are the questions which face any politician who has to consider giving an apology for anything - which probably explains why so many of them refuse to make them. In some cases an intended apology only confuses the issue and leads to the demand for further clarification.

Take Bill Clinton for instance. In August 1998 he decided to apologise over "that woman": "As you know, in a deposition in January, I was asked questions about my relationship with Monica Lewinsky. While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information. Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. And so tonight, I ask you to turn away from the spectacle of the past seven months, to repair the fabric of our national discourse and to return our attention to all the challenges and all the promise of the next American century."

He should have known, of course, that the use of the phrase "legally accurate" would raise eyebrows, because, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, it just sounded like he had been "telling lies in the proper manner".

It was a rambling, self-indulgent, poor-old-me performance and even his supporters were hard-pushed to defend it. More apologies were to follow, leading to the absurdity of Clinton finally admitting: "I'm having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness."

I think the most famous apology in my lifetime was Richard Nixon's, made in May 1977 in an interview with David Frost: "I let down my friends. I let down my country. I let down our system of government, the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government, but will think it's all too corrupt and the rest. I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life. My political life is over."

Oddly, he didn't seem to think it necessary to ask for forgiveness. But it didn't seem to matter because it was enough to kick-start a process of rehabilitation in which people were prepared to consider his broader beliefs and legacy.

Another significant apology came from John Profumo to the House of Commons in March 1963: "To my very deep regret I have to admit that this was not true (what he had previously said about his relationship with Christine Keeler) and that I misled you and my colleagues and the House."

Profumo left public life, dedicated himself to charitable and philanthropic work and, like Nixon, was fully rehabilitated by the end of his life.

Yet, generally speaking, politicians still don't "do" apologies - even here in Northern Ireland, where you would have thought an apology now and again wouldn't go amiss.

Former Secretaries of State Patrick Mayhew and Peter Brooke both got into trouble. In June 1993, when he was at Castleward Opera, Mayhew got asked about an earlier terrorist incident and replied: "Nobody's dead, and at the end of this opera everybody's dead." And Brooke, on the same day that eight people were killed at Teebane in January 1992, sang My Darling Clementine on a late night show on RTE.

Both men hinted at a willingness to resign, yet both knew that John Major wasn't going to accept: so both opted for a carefully nuanced apology instead.

In 1994 the UVF's Gusty Spence expressed "abject and true remorse" for past actions: but, 20 years later, the UVF still appears to be armed and active.

David Cameron was praised for his Bloody Sunday apology, yet that, while important, wasn't a personal apology. The SDLP's Conall McDevitt resigned and apologised in September 2013 after not declaring some payments received as an MLA. In an interview with Eamonn Mallie in 2014, Ian Paisley seemed to hint at regrets and mistakes, but nothing that amounted to an apology.

For some people it's: "Never regret, never apologise." For others "sorry" is just too hard a word to say. Some think that an apology is a sign of weakness, while others think an apology can lead to pressure for a resignation.

But it's the fact that there are so few of them - which explains why they tend to be remembered.

Belfast Telegraph

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