A sorry situation: when politicians grapple with apology

Political gaffes and seeking forgiveness

Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence Alan Shatter: issued a carefully worded  apology  to Mick Wallace in May. Photograph:  Dara Mac Donaill

Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence Alan Shatter: issued a carefully worded apology to Mick Wallace in May. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill


Sorry really isn’t, as Elton John insists, the hardest word. The hardest words are those we tack on to “sorry” to qualify it. Recently we’ve had plenty of politicians stumbling on those.

In May, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter faux-apologised for disclosing Garda-sourced information about Mick Wallace. “If Deputy Wallace feels that I did him some personal wrong by mentioning it, then I have no problem in saying I am sorry,” he said, using a variation on the classic “I’m sorry if I caused offence” apology. This actually means: “I’m sorry you’re so thin-skinned, you big baby.”

Downplaying offence
Another clever tactic is to apologise in a manner that makes the offence seem less serious. After the Dáil debate in which Fine Gael’s Tom Barry pulled his colleague Áine Collins on to his lap, party officials initially downgraded it from harassment to “horseplay”. (In fairness, Barry’s own apology was unreserved.)

David Norris’s apology for saying that Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty was “talking through her fanny” referenced “intemperate” language but didn’t address the fact many found it misogynistic.

Of course, some hard nuts insist that, in this PC age when you can’t even be a little bit racist/sexist/drunk-at-work, people take offence too easily. It’s probably fairer to say that we’ve liberalised the offence market. We are now free to personally decide what we are and aren’t hurt by. We also have 24-hour newsfeeds, eagle-eyed social media users and a huge computer network that fossilises political gaffes that would otherwise be lost in time like tears in rain.

This isn’t a bad thing. The resulting hubbub might distract from the day-to-day business of politics, but politicians “going bad” (sounds like a potential television programme) also provides us with examples of moral certainty in a world dominated by troublesome shades of grey.

When Tom Barry gave us “lapgate”, the Dáil was debating an issue – a change in the law on abortion – that was fraught and complex. “Lapgate” was clear-cut. It affirmed something almost everyone seemed to agree on: pulling female colleagues on to your lap is a bad thing.

The time we spend discussing these instances is often a measure of how unambiguous the issues are. They become an opportunity to reassert aspirational communal values in the face of disappointing, sometimes shocking, transgressions against those values.

Sincere apology
We intuitively understand this on a larger scale. The most unconditional apologies come when politicians are answering for the very bad behaviour of predecessors. Enda Kenny’s apology to the victims of the Magdalene Laundries was an unreserved statement of contemporary moral values.

The smaller apologies for stupid/bad behaviour operate in a similar way. It’s a ritual, and thanks to modern technology, it’s one we’re going to see played out more and more – the political faux pas, followed by an outcry, followed by an apology. Politicians have to become better at saying sorry. I was wrong. I apologise. We move on.

You don’t agree? I’m sorry you feel that way.