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Dublin: 19 °C Wednesday 30 July, 2014

Column: Why sorry is the hardest word

How can a government be asked to apologise for something in recent history when the full facts have yet to be disclosed, writes David McCann.

David McCann

THE PAST FEW weeks has seen a raft of apologies from politicians. We have seen David Cameron say sorry for the cover-up around the Hillsborough tragedy and more recently, Nick Clegg, on his broken promise around raising tuition fees.

The sight of politicians saying sorry is nothing new, nor are the demands for public apologies exclusively directed toward the British government. However, a motion in the Northern Ireland assembly was passed last week urging the Irish government to apologise for its role in the emergence of the Provisional IRA and its lack of efficiency in pursuing terrorist suspects throughout the Troubles.

In proposing his motion, the DUP MP Gregory Campbell, argued that the Irish government played a ‘midwife’ role in the creation of the PIRA in 1970 and in order to bring closure to the Troubles an apology from the government should be forthcoming. But watching the debate in Stormont and commentary afterwards, I was poised to ask: what service at all would this debate serve for families of those who were killed by the Provos over the last 30 years?

The spectacle of politicians arguing about who was to blame for the outbreak of the Troubles and who should be apologising for events that happened more than four decades ago finally made me understand George Mitchell’s line that people in the United States know too little and people in Northern Ireland know too much. Although, considering the debate in Stormont, Mitchell could be forgiven for wanting to amend his comment to people who know too much about the version of history that suits their particular viewpoint.

“The evidence is far from clear”

Contrary to some declarative statements made in Stormont during the week, the evidence is far from clear on the Irish government’s activities during the first months of the Troubles. The scandal now known as the ‘arms crisis’ has been examined from a variety of perspectives by many different journalists and academics and very few have been able to come to any definitive conclusions as to what involvement the Irish government of that time had importing arms to Northern Nationalists.

From reading the State papers, the only thing that is clear is that level of confusion among ministers about the violence in Northern Ireland and the division between the moderates and hardliners within the cabinet about how to respond to the worsening situation in Belfast and Derry.

This level of confusion around what actually happened during this chaotic period is only compounded when politicians decades later come on our TV screens and declare as statements of fact a particular perspective of history that suits a narrative that they want to put on the last 40 years. I am not arguing that political figures have no right to comment on any historical matters but when the issues that are being debated are so recent and the issues are so contentious would it not be better for a more restrained approach. Demanding apologies from governments about past
events and starting debates which continually degenerate into a competition between which sides has the most to apologise for will do nothing to heal the wounds of the Troubles.

“Rehashing events of the past”

I have read numerous studies, looked through the archive papers during this period and even I cannot give a categorical statement on what happened during this period. Instead of focusing on conjecture and intrigue, I would suggest that politicians would better serve victims of the Troubles by focusing on the present rather than rehashing events of the past. A few weeks ago I wrote about the need to move republicanism away from its violent past in order to become relevant in 2012.

Perhaps a similar approach needs to be adopted in how we conduct debates around the Troubles. How can we expect the violent scenes that we saw in Belfast a few weeks ago a thing of the past, if politicians cannot breakout of a Troubles mindset?

Political leaders have an important part to play in helping society move on but they can only do this if they look to the future. Those political leaders who spent time on this debate during the week would be better focusing their energies on clearing the important commemorative hurdles that are still to come over the next few weeks instead of worrying about the past. In Ireland and Britain we are spending millions of euro and pounds on independent inquiries to uncover the truth about abuses and collusion.

There is little point in asking for and creating these tribunals if politicians are simply to pre-determine the outcome of them. While truth recovery is important to allow people to move on, I would submit that this task is better left with an independent judge rather than a national or provincial legislature. At this moment, sorry may seem to be the hardest word for the Irish government but any worthwhile apology can only surely be given when all the facts are on the table.

David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster.

Read previous columns by David McCann>

Poll: Should Dublin apologise for its role in the Troubles?>

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