Sorry seems to be the hardest word

WHAT is it about this Government and their inability to say sorry?

Community Affairs Minister Eamon Ó Cuiv said it last night, but only after he was pushed repeatedly by presenter Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics. And even then, it was qualified. The Government was sorry for whatever mistakes it made, Mr Ó Cuiv said, but all administrations made mistakes.

Such qualifications have been a hallmark of Government in recent months. Take the Taoiseach himself. Time and time again, we have heard Brian Cowen saying he will “not shirk” the difficult decisions. But one decision has proven too difficult for Mr Cowen: the decision to truly say sorry.

The Fianna Fáil-led administrations of the past decade or so became too reliant on the property boom and the taxes it created. Government spending soared, with seemingly no recognition that if the property bubble burst, the sector-related taxes would go with it. Well, the bubble did burst, and the country is in an economic mess, but Mr Cowen — who was finance minister before becoming Taoiseach — has yet to offer an unqualified apology. There have been admissions of responsibility, yes. But they are admissions of partial responsibility at best. Every time such an admission comes, it is qualified by the rider that “it wasn’t all our fault”. Such attempts to wiggle out of the blame do nothing to restore the Taoiseach’s credibility with the public.

Take Mr Cowen’s most recent stab at the issue. It came in a pre-budget briefing with political correspondents. In short, he accepted part of the blame for the recession and expressed regret for those suffering, but insisted he was not fully responsible.

“Yes we did have an emphasis on transactional taxes,” he said, in what sounded like a promising beginning. “Now, nobody foresaw what has happened here now in the global economy.”

Translation: it’s the global downturn that caught us.

“I take all the responsibility for all of the decisions I have taken,” he added, before another, inevitable qualification came: “And they were taken on the best available advice to me at the time.”

Translation: this is what advisers told me to do.

“Are there changes now that I would contemplate were I to know now that we would be in this position? Of course different decisions would have been taken,” he said.

Translation: everyone would be wise with hindsight.

“And do I regret everyone or anyone who is unemployed, or anyone is facing anxiety and concerns? Of course I do. Am I fully responsible for all that happened? No. But do I take my share of responsibility with respect of it? Of course I do.”

Translation: “I’ll take some of the blame because I have to be seen to be humble and contrite, but I’ll be damned if I’m taking all of the blame.”

His fellow ministers operate in a similar vein. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, for example, followed Mr Cowen’s lead in his budget speech.

“With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that more should have been done to contain the housing market. We became too reliant on the construction sector for growth and tax receipts,” he began, in what sounded like a promising start at a mea culpa. But the qualification came in the very next paragraph.

“If all our difficulties related to the recent construction boom in Ireland, I would not be before you this afternoon. We are the living witnesses to the most dramatic collapse in the world financial order since 1929,” he added.

Needless to say, the word “sorry” didn’t feature. There is a view in political circles that to apologise is to surrender. If this Government offers an unreserved apology, the view goes, it is effectively dead in the water.

But without an apology, it is effectively dead in the water too. In circumstances where the Government has introduced two severe budgets in seven months, it cannot expect public anger to dissipate without one.


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