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Harris’s empathetic apology to Stardust families shows he has a quality that is key in modern politics

This was not a test of his decision-making – it was a test of his ability to perform as Taoiseach

The findings by the Stardust inquest of unlawful killing last week were not unexpected within Government and so the subsequent apology has been on the cards for some time.

Last week, while attending his first European Council summit in Brussels, new Taoiseach Simon Harris’s staff tuned into the live feed from the inquest, as the verdicts were announced. A statement was quickly drafted and released in response. When the summit concluded on Thursday afternoon, Harris rang Antoinette Keegan, one of the chief spokespeople for the families, and said he would like to meet her and the other families.

That evening, after the inquest was concluded, the families walked the short distance to the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Square, where they called for a State apology. Preparations for it were already under way; Harris and his senior officials wanted to be proactive on it. They weren’t going to wait for further demands by the relatives or motions in the Dáil. They wanted to get ahead of it.

About 40 of the relatives replied to invitations to come to Government Buildings on Saturday to meet the Taoiseach; 71 turned up. Officials had envisaged that the meeting in the Italian Room would involve Harris speaking to the room and then circulating to the tables to speak privately to small groups; instead, according to one person there, “it turned into one big group session”. There were tears, but also laughter.


And there was anger, too. Some of the relatives want State action against those they hold responsible. Harris said privately what he said publicly about the independence of the criminal justice process. Nobody, at any stage, raised the issue of compensation.

There was, however, a warning to Harris: we will judge you on the apology. You will only get one chance at this.

The speech was heavily influenced by meeting the relatives. Drafts were worked on over the weekend by Harris and his officials, while the Taoiseach also spoke to the Fianna Fáil and Green leaders repeatedly on the subject. He also spoke to Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, agreeing that the apology would take precedence over any other Dáil business this week.

The Attorney General’s office was also consulted on the drafts, though no changes were made for legal reasons, according to people familiar with the process. The question of compensation for the relatives will come at a later date, but will rest on the State’s moral obligations, rather than legal liability.

By Monday evening, Harris had a draft that he was happy with. He wanted to make a further connection with the victims and their families though, and contacted Keegan to say he intended to visit the Stardust memorial in Artane. She said she would meet him there.

He had, he told her, the apology with him. Would she like to read it? She would – but she didn’t have her glasses. So he read it to her. She was happy with it. She gave him a pin that he wore in the Dáil chamber.

Relatives began gathering at Leinster House from late morning, for what would be a day of high emotion. Harris, in his first major Dáil set-piece, gave an assured and empathetic performance, noticeably staying – unlike most TDs – to the end of the nearly four-hour debate.

In truth, the decisions made by Harris are no different from those that would have been made had his predecessor still been there. But this was not a test of his decision-making – it was a test of his ability to perform as Taoiseach. And he showed he can project empathy, a quality that is essential in modern politics.

The former British prime minister, Tony Blair, was perhaps the first great modern practitioner of this performative empathy, and though it seemed to the political cognoscenti sometimes unbearably hammy and contrived, Blair managed to connect at a basic level with many ordinary voters. It is now essential for every leader. As well as a significant day for the Dáil, and a huge one for the Stardust relatives, this was a test of sorts for Harris. He passed.