Demanding an apology is a sorry task

What else can I be, all apologies?” Brian Cowen is hardly a fan of Kurt Cobain, but perhaps he empathises with the line from the Nirvana song, ‘All Apologies’.

Demanding an apology is a sorry task

Last week, Cowen was caught up in the latest circus surrounding an apology, something, we are told, for which the country is crying out.

Cowen gave an interview to the TG4 programme, Cómhrá, and discussed his time as Minister for Finance and as Taoiseach. The programme is to be aired next week, but the script was filleted in search of an apology. None was found.

Cowen expressed “regret” at what had unfolded, but that wasn’t enough.

“I would like to say — because it’s important to do so, and I’ve said this before — I have a serious duty to accept my responsibility for what happened and I’m doing that,” he said.

It is unclear for what exactly he is to apologise. His time as a cabinet minister, from 1997?

His four years as Minister for Finance?

His tenure as Taoiseach?

The banking crisis?

The crisis that developed in the public finances?

The global credit meltdown?

Offaly’s failure to compete in the Leinster football championship in recent years?

His very existence?

One newspaper ran a strap headline on its front page, the day after the news broke of the interview. “How dare this disgraced, self-serving (but very well-off), utterly failed politician refuse to say sorry for his actions?”

Snapshots of sentiment, in phone-in shows and on social media, suggest this line chimes with the public. ‘Apologise, Cowen. Get down on your knees, and apologise for the state we’re in’. Following the TG4 interview hullabaloo, Cowen felt compelled to say something more, at a rare public appearance, on Thursday evening.

“Nobody is more sorry than I,” he said, when confronted with the apology question.

That Brian Cowen bears political responsibility for much that has befallen this country is beyond doubt.

In the hierarchy of political culpability, he is near the top, probably in a holding tank with Charlie McCreevy, just behind Bertie Ahern. But this fixation with an apology is a different matter.

If Cowen should be compelled to apologise for his performance as a politician, let’s spread the net and reel in a few more apologies. Eamon Ó Cuiv is the political heir to his grandfather, Eamon DeValera, whose economic policies were a disaster.

A culture of high unemployment and habitual emigration grew during Dev’s long years at the helm, ruining the potential for a comfortable life for hundreds of thousands. Should Ó Cuiv offer a belated family apology for that mismanagement?

Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty last week said that Cowen’s comments exposed a “cocky and arrogant mentality.” Doherty’s party colleagues, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, are widely believed to have been at the apex of the IRA at the height of the Troubles. Surely, every political utterance by either man should be prefixed with an apology for having advocated murder for political ends. Whatever mistakes Cowen made, however he messed up, he never plumbed those depths.

Pat Rabbitte was out last week, as well, sticking it to ‘cavemen’ who get by without TVs or tablets in their homes. He didn’t apologise for that, but perhaps he should for his party’s conduct a few years back, when he was the leader. Labour was first out of the auction traps in advance of the 2007 general election, promising to cut the standard rate of tax.

This was when income tax was among the lowest in the OECD, in an overheated economy that was about to blow. And here was Labour dressing up in the clothes of the Progressive Democrats, wanting to push the public finances further towards the abyss for electoral gain.

Surely, an apology is merited for that sort of reckless and ideologically confused politics?

While they’re at it, Enda Kenny could be hauled in for an apology on behalf of his party predecessor, Garret Fitzgerald. The coalition government run by Fitzgerald, in the 1980s, was so inept that Ireland wallowed in recession while much of the world basked in a healthy economic glow. Around 30,000 people emigrated each year during that government’s tenure, while unemployment tipped 20%. Surely, somebody should apologise for the hardship and pain that was inflicted on a generation back then.

That’s the reality, if you want to get into political apologies. There’s plenty to go around, but, in today’s media age, and at a time when righteous anger trumps all, some want to see the likes of Cowen melt into tears on TV and apologise for everything that transpired. They’ll be waiting a long time.

Understandably, there is great anger at the obscene pension that Cowen pulls in. But he is not alone there. Others in politics, in the regulator’s office, in the department of finance, are also sitting on obscene pensions, and there is great reluctance in the Government to do anything radical that might impact on their own feathered retirement, when the time comes around.

Cowen was guilty of mismanagement, principally during his time in finance. He had, until ascending to that role, led a charmed political life. A legend had grown up around his political persona, based on his intellect, wit, and capacity to stick the boot into political opponents. Yet, he was unable or unwilling to challenge the system Ahern and McCreevy had cultivated in using the public finances as an election war-chest at a time of plenty.

Like many others, he engaged in wishful thinking, rather than hard analysis, when it came to economic forecasts. He believed in the myth of a soft landing, but was he unique in that? Hardly.

He said last week that everything he did was for the good of the country, but he can be accused of conflating what was for the good of the country with what was good for his party. In this, again, he was not unique.

Of late, there have been a number of apologies for historic wrongs. David Cameron made a genuine effort, on behalf of Britain, to the victims of Bloody Sunday. Kenny did likewise to survivors of Magdalene laundries. These gestures were cathartic for the victims, and related to the state visiting pain, hardship and death on its own people.

Cowen’s misdemeanours were of a different order. While whole legions are suffering economic hardship, it would be easy, but entirely illogical, to attribute blame to one individual. At a time when a real leader was called for in managing the national finances, he was not up to the job. He has paid the price, in terms of his political legacy, not to mention a shortened career.

Continuing to pursue him, to prostrate himself before the nation and beg forgiveness, won’t serve anybody’s interests. Not alone that, it would also devalue the notion of an apology for wrongs done in the past. Better to just find out what exactly happened, and do our damnedest to ensure it can never happen again.

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