FERGUS FINLAY: Sorry seems to be the hardest word for Institutional Ireland

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

Archbishop Martin, the GAA, An Garda Síochána, the HSE, and Donald Trump. There’s a bunch that have nothing in common, you’d be thinking. Except maybe one thing — an inability to say sorry.

Some of the instances we’ve seen in the past week or so have been small, and some of them much bigger and more important.

Trump’s flailing around over immigration — trying to pretend that he wasn’t responsible for the brutal separation of mothers and children at the US Mexican border — was the most loathsome example.

But all of them pointed to a central feature of institutional power — the inability to apologise for a mistake, lest it be taken as a sign of weakness.

Take the GAA. It’s a fine organisation that has made an enormous contribution to the development of modern Ireland. It is run to decent standards of probity, and always has been. But when they cock something up, they seem to go all in.

I’ve always admired people who can bring themselves to say sorry. I have a bit of a difficulty with it myself — I hate to be proved wrong in an argument. 

Even as a youngster I was notorious for bringing dictionaries to the table if there was any discussion about the meaning or spelling of a word.

Nowadays I’ll whip out my phone at the drop of a hat, in the belief that Google will prove me right.

As often as not, of course, it doesn’t. So then it’s time for a diversionary tactic, change the subject somehow, so I won’t have to admit I was bested. The people who know me best and love me most just find that annoying.

One of the less endearing aspects of my otherwise sunny disposition.

Large institutions, by and large, don’t have sunny dispositions. They have power and influence, and nothing matters more to them than the preservation of that.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word for Institutional Ireland

So when the GAA made a dog’s dinner of a simple match fixture, breaking their own rules to try to force Kildare to play away from home in a situation where they were entitled to a home match, they caused a week’s spurious and unnecessary controversy that threatened to damage their own credibility and relations throughout the organisation.

In the end they had to back down. The appropriate thing to do was to say sorry. We made a bags of that, and Kildare were right to stand their ground.

Instead, they cobbled together something to the effect that it was wonderful that they had managed to reconcile a range of health and safety concerns, thanks to information provided by Kildare.

It will all be forgotten in due course, but damage has been done. And the damage was compounded by the inability of a large organisation simply to say sorry when it was warranted.

Archbishop Martin is the representative of an even larger organisation. He launched an attack on a member of the Dáil who also happened to be a member of the congregation in Mount Merrion when the priest scheduled to say Mass failed to turn up.

After helping to lead a prayer service, Josepha Madigan subsequently (not from the altar) made remarks about the need for women priests.

Nothing, you’d have thought, too controversial about that. Sooner or later, if only for the want of priests, the Catholic Church is going to have to begin to ordain women. 

But Archbishop Martin, who had clearly got out of the wrong side of the bed, attacked her views as “bizarre”, and managed to create the impression that Ms Madigan really ought to know her place and not be offering impertinent opinions.

In due course, you’d imagine, the good archbishop might take an opportunity to say sorry. A bit of an over-reaction there, didn’t mean to get personal. 

Josepha Madigan
Josepha Madigan

Instead he apologised to the congregation for the rostering mix-up that led to the absence of a priest, while insisting there is no shortage of priests in the diocese, and implying that he’d never said anything unkind about Ms Madigan in the first place.

You’d be tempted to suggest that the old rule about putting down your shovel when you’re in a hole that’s already too deep might apply. It’s all of a piece, though, with the general demeanour of the Church. The institution is never wrong.

But instances like this pale into insignificance alongside other examples of institutional intransigence in the face of their own wrongdoing.

A retired consultant anaesthetist called Peter Thorpe recently wrote a letter to the papers in which he made this simple point: “I have had problems in the past concerning patients’ satisfaction with my anaesthetics and have personally talked to them face to face and explained the situation pertinent to their concerns. 

I was truthful and allayed their concerns. It has been my experience both overseas and in Ireland that a full and truthful explanation of events is the only way to say ‘sorry but we are human and very occasionally don’t get it right’. 

As far as the management in the health service is concerned the first reaction is close ranks and admit nothing. This is an institutional response especially promoted by insurance agencies of all kinds.”

He was writing about the CervicalCheck scandal which has shattered lives, cost millions, and led to a situation where the HSE has no chief executive. 

Every one of the women involved in that controversy has had to fight through pain and suffering to hear the simple words, “we made a terrible mistake, and we’re sorry”. And they all know that apologies forced out of institutions are grudged, not real.

The reluctance to apologise in cases like this goes well beyond cultural intransigence. It’s a form of corruption, where ordinary human needs are made secondary, as a matter of policy, to the needs of the bureaucracy. It turns the idea of public service entirely on its head.

Emma Mhic Mhathuna, one of the women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal
Emma Mhic Mhathuna, one of the women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal

The same is true, and to the same extent, of An Garda Síochána. The Charleton Tribunal has now completed its hearings and arguments.

In due course a report will be issued, and sometime after that the dozens of lawyers involved in the tribunal’s many months of work will start to be paid (by us).

Of course, it’s not possible to assert with certainty what the tribunal will find. Except for one thing. An officer of An Garda Síochána, trying only to do his job, was done a terrible wrong. His reputation was assaulted and his family subjected to unbearable stress. 

Instead of saying sorry, the perpetrators (and I have little doubt that they will be identified), doubled down. They circled the wagons within the gardaí, and they took every opportunity to inflict more humiliation on an innocent man.

Of course all these stories are different in scale. But what’s depressing about them is the frequency with which we see these kinds of thing happening, the inability to learn lessons, and the entrenched attitudes they reveal. 

Institutional Ireland can do no wrong in its own eyes.

But they keep on doing it anyway, and ignoring the consequences. Is it any wonder that respect for all forms of authority is at an all-time low?

Respect, after all, should be something earned. Not something demanded.

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