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Eilis O'Hanlon: Arlen Foster's partial and begrudging apology hardly lessens the wrong but SF aren't great at saying sorry either

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Sorry seems to be the hardest word. Except in public life, where beleaguered politicians apologise all the time for causing offence or upsetting some section of the voters.

In an age of heightened sensitivity, there's no point digging your heels in as the hysterical chorus grows louder on social media. Whether you mean it or not, it's best just to say sorry, put the issue to bed, and move on.

So the only surprise about DUP leader Arlene Foster's apology for referring to supporters of an Irish Language Act as crocodiles, greedily gobbling up concessions before coming back for more, is that it took her so long. That, and the fact the apology was so begrudging.

She told the Impartial Reporter in her Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency that she regretted making the remark "in so far as it allowed Sinn Fein to use it against me and to use it to demonise me", which is like giving with one hand, then taking away with the other.

Clearly she's still smarting at the way SF exploited her words to their electoral advantage; but she was the one who handed them the opportunity to play the victim.

Mrs Foster is also justifiably aggrieved at being subsequently caricatured as a sectarian bigot, who couldn't bear to have a Catholic about the place; but, again, she could have defused that quickly by being more conciliatory. She may have been in the middle of what she admits was a "bruising" election, but, as events proved, there was little to be gained from obstinacy.

Nor is the wrong necessarily diminished by a partial apology which seems to suggest the only thing wrong with what she said is that it caused her trouble.

Sinn Fein's indignation at being likened to crocodiles is neither here nor there. They're big and ugly enough to take it. The real offence was in the dismissive way she talked about Irish language speakers as if they were squandering precious local resources when they work and contribute to this society the same way as everyone else. It's not entirely clear she grasps that even now.

For all that, Arlene Foster's apology was a deal more sincere than Gerry Adams' after he made much more offensive remarks at a party meeting in Enniskillen referring to unionists as "b*******", and to equality as the "Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy".

The Sinn Fein president's only climbdown from that revealing bit of nastiness was to send out one of his glib, childish tweets to say: "I shuldn't (sic) call bigots, racists or homophobes b*******. Mea culpa."

That bore no more relation to a real apology than Adams himself resembles a deep thinker, but it's as far as he's ever likely to go to admit when he's out of order.

Arlene Foster has her flaws, but those who loyally defend the Sinn Fein president's frequently menacing and mean-spirited outbursts are the last people with any right to call her out on them.

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