The Issue of Apologising


How does one define an apology? Is an apology meaningless if you qualify your expression of regret; or still adhere to the belief that what you did in the past was justified, thus reducing the apology to a gesture?

Some of these issues were discussed the other morning on BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Sunday Sequence’. The subject arose in the light of Tony Blair’s imminent public apology to the Conlon family over the wrongful imprisonment of Gerry Conlon (of the Guildford Four) and his father, Giuseppe, who died in custody in 1980.

Both, along with several others, were falsely accused of bombing public bars in Guildford and Woolwich which resulted in the deaths of four soldiers and a civilian. They were jailed and remained in jail despite members of an IRA active service unit, which was arrested in London’s Balcombe Street in 1975, exonerating them and admitting responsibility for the bombings.

I was a panellist on ‘Sunday Sequence’ along with the Reverend David Clements (a Methodist Minister), David Ervine of the PUP and Dean Nicholas Frayling (author of the book ‘Pardon and Peace’).

David Clements’ father, William, was a Methodist lay preacher who was in the RUC and who was killed by the IRA outside Ballygawley barracks in December 1985. I had friends who were killed by the RUC and I was jailed three times by the RUC. To me the RUC conjures up a huge canvas of images from the baton charging of civil rights protestors, to attacking Catholic homes in August 1969, to prisoners being tortured and framed, to collusion with loyalists in the assassinations of nationalists.

But I very much doubt if that is what David Clements has in mind when he thinks of the RUC, his father, his colleagues and their cause. I have to allow that those were never his perpceptions of the force and that to him the killing of his father was ‘murder’ and ‘a crime’.

On ‘Sunday Sequence’ he and I had an exchange when I mentioned that three years ago the IRA had apologised to the families of those people, non-combatants, innocent bystanders, whom it had killed. Some of the relatives of the dead welcomed the apology; others were lukewarm or hostile.

The Reverend Clements argued that this wasn’t a ‘proper apology’. He said: “The IRA didn’t apologise for the murder of my father. He was an Irishman and a Godly Christian man. Because he wore a police uniform they regarded him as a legitimate target.”

From the Rev Clements’ remarks I understand that a ‘proper apology’ would have to involve ‘repentance’ (a complete turning away from one’s actions). I agreed that the IRA had not apologised for killing his father though it did acknowledge the grief and pain of the relatives of those whom it considered enemy combatants, and whom it wilfully killed. I pointed out that I would not expect the British army or the RUC to apologise for having killed IRA Volunteers or anybody involved in combat, even though I hold British interference in Ireland to be the ultimate cause of the conflict.

I believe that apologies, even if they are gestures, are important and useful, especially, for example, if Tony Blair’s helps alert the British public to some of the shameful things done in its name. Or, if the IRA belatedly admits to having wrongly accused and killed someone as an alleged informer.

Historically, and throughout the conflict, many wrongs were perpetrated by all sides, especially Britain, its forces and agents against the Irish nationalist community. However, there will never be a ‘proper apology’ for the British conquest of Ireland - which has bequeathed us our current difficulties. Nor will unionist leaders properly apologise for unionism’s systemic mistreatment of nationalists under Stormont, or for their many apologias for state violence which in turn helped fuel the IRA campaign.

This refusal is easy understood and applies also to the Republican Movement which was responsible for a large share of the killings. To repent, to repudiate the legitimacy of one’s past is to risk invalidating the legitimacy of one’s current position. To surrender the historical narrative to the enemy is to weaken one’s position and surrender political opportunity to the enemy.

For Britain to show repentance and admit that it had grievously wronged Ireland would be to admit that its republican enemy had a case and on occasion acted understandably, even legitimately.

People, organisations, governments might admit to individual mistakes but not to being wrong in general or the prime cause of conflict. Only one party – Ian Paisley’s DUP - refuses to apologise for its catalogue of offences. Until it can bring itself to apologise it will never bring itself to share power in a spirit of reconciliation with a people whom it so self-righteously despises and has for so long insulted.

< Prev ... Next >

[ back ]

© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison