ALISON O'CONNOR: Masters of the conditional apology should try some genuine remorse

For too long sorry seemed to be the hardest word to utter in Irish public life. But that is no longer the case. The advent of the banking inquiry means no one week seems complete without at least one being uttered along with a public beating of the chest, well more like a gentle palpitating.

The truth is that having waited what seemed like forever for the word “sorry” to be uttered in relation to the spectacular collapse of our economy we have heard it so much recently as to almost render it meaningless.

It seems de rigeur for inquiry witnesses to get it out there in one’s opening statement to the TDs and senators who have been sweltering their way through the days in Committee Room 1 in Leinster House.

Prior to this plethora of public apologies we had a situation where those most likely to need to utter a public “I’m sorry”, our politicians, specialised in the art of the non-apology apology, and by politicians I mostly mean Fianna Fáilers.

During their lengthy terms in office there were more than enough occasions when one or the other of them should have said a heartfelt sorry.

Instead we were invariably treated to the “If I offended anyone” version, and a good dose of a passive-aggressive attitude thrown in. They were the absolute masters of the conditional apology.

There was always an “if” clause or the passive voice of “mistakes were made”, or the one where regret was mentioned but the person expressing regret was evasive on the detail of exactly why they were sorry, or the nature of the offense caused.

We could not call them mea culpas because that means “through my fault” and the acknowledging of having done wrong, which they certainly did not.

Strangely it was an apology made by the actor Benedict Cumberbatch at the beginning of this year, which pre-dated the slew of them being thrown around the Banking Inquiry, which made me realise what a real, thorough and genuine one really sounds like.

“The damage is done,” he said in a statement to People magazine after receiving criticism for using the term “colored people” in an on-air interview in the US. He proceeded to hit all the bases of what a good apology should involve.

“I’m devastated to have caused offense by using this outmoded terminology. I offer my sincere apologies. I make no excuse for my being an idiot and know the damage is done. I can only hope this incident will highlight the need for correct usage of terminology that is accurate and inoffensive.

"The most shaming aspect of this for me is that I was talking about racial inequality in the performing arts in the UK and the need for rapid improvements in our industry when I used the term … I feel the complete fool I am and while I am sorry to have offended people and to learn from my mistakes in such a public manner please be assured I have.”

Now that was genuine heartfelt remorse. You felt you knew he had been tormented by his slip of the tongue and the offense it had caused to people. It set a standard of sorts for public apologies. Sadly the bankers, economists and politicians who have been trudging through the inquiry failed to either notice it or take note of it.

In the interests of fairness I think it is worth including the more recent vintage political non apology apology made by Taoiseach Enda Kenny during the McNulty/IMMA affair last September. “I wouldn’t say it was my finest hour, and I take responsibility for this having evolved to what people might imagine it is.”

Now Fianna Fáil has spent recent years trying to do the direct opposite to what, for instance, Mr Cumberbatch did, in that they have contorted themselves verbally in attempting to think up ways of looking like they are apologising for wrecking our economy, when in fact they are simply going through the motions and being utterly conditional.

I refer you to leader Micheál Martin’s speech to the party’s 2012 Ard Fheis. It was just as cleverly crafted as one would expect. The beginning of it was a magnificently rich vein of qualifications and the pointing of the finger of blame elsewhere.

“It’s not enough to point to the worst world recession in 80 years and the Eurozone crisis. Nor to point to the fact that other parties were demanding policies which would have made things worse — that’s for them to answer for,” he said.

He did go on to say: “We were in government and we should have acted differently. We made mistakes. We got things wrong. And we are sorry for that. No equivocation. No half-apology. Just the plain, unvarnished truth.

But the fact is he had got his defence in at the start, first pointing fingers worldwide and then closer to home, at the Opposition. No one could claim this was an apology oozing with genuine remorse.

Now when former Taoiseach Brian Cowen took his place in the witness chair at the banking inquiry, he too got stuck in straight away saying that he apologised and accepted fully his role in, and response to, the crisis as head of government at that time.

The problem is that in the hours that followed it was quite clear that while he might talk the talk of apology, he most certainly did not walk the walk. How else could he have argued so trenchantly that he did not accept he had mismanaged the economy. “People can have their criticisms of it but there is a very clear policy position behind what we were trying to do.”

That is not remorse, that is justification. If the person in charge, and his ruling political party, were not the ones responsible for our economy going down the tubes then who was?

Yes, there was a serious international downturn, but the people who made our domestic economic decisions, and allowed for a situation not just of light financial regulation but effectively no regulation, meant we were ripe for utter financial devastation when the storm hit.

I do believe Mr Cowen was genuine when he said he was sorry that the necessary measures had such a “human cost” and “was the most difficult aspect of the decisions we had to make”. But again this is couched in the terms of these decisions having to be made rather than him and his party being the ones who put us in this position in the first place.

I haven’t forgotten that there was a second Fianna Fáil “star” witness last week in the shape of another former finance minister – Charlie McCreevy. But really the less said about his contribution the better for our national mental health.

But back to sorry being the hardest word to utter. An apology can’t fix everything but when someone says sorry and genuinely means it, that can show they are aware that what they did was wrong and the damage that their actions caused.

Listening to Mr’s Cowen and McCreevy there seems a strong likelihood that if they were back in charge they’d quite easily do it all again.

There seems a strong likelihood that if they were back in charge they’d quite easily do it all again


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