IRA's troubled apology

Remorse: The Irish Republican Army recently apologized for past misdeeds. But some say the statement was self-serving.

July 21, 2002|By Patrick Michael Rucker | Patrick Michael Rucker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the catalog of brutality that Northern Ireland records simply as "the Troubles," the events that occurred 30 years ago today are worth remembering.

It was Friday, the weather was pleasant and the streets of Belfast were crowded with afternoon shoppers when police received the first in a string of bomb threats. For the next hour and a half, about every five or eight minutes, the city shook with the blast of 21 explosions.

The death toll - nine killed - was mercifully modest but more than 130 able-bodied people ended that day blind, limbless or otherwise maimed. By that evening, as horrified television viewers watched technicians collecting human remains, the day came to be called "Bloody Friday."

The Irish Republican Army acknowledged responsibility but peevishly faulted the security service for the destruction - why hadn't they moved faster? That attitude was fairly typical. The perpetrators of violence styled themselves as victims - of their enemy, of circumstance. They were responsible for nothing and so had nothing to regret.

Tuesday, the IRA acknowledged and apologized for their part in the conflict that killed more than 3,500 people - half of those deaths can be attributed to the IRA. Most observers thought the IRA would never make such a statement, but accepting responsibility and conveying remorse for past misdeeds has become something of a recent trend.

Entire governments have tried to convey the sentiment, even as they have been reluctant to actually say "sorry." President Bill Clinton acknowledged that American slavery was "wrong." French President Jacques Chirac expressed remorse for French complicity in the Nazi Holocaust.

Australia's stolen generation, aborigines who were handed over to white families in an assimilation drive, were certainly victims of a great wrong. Yet Prime Minister John Howard has not seen fit to use the words "apology" or "sorry." The closest he has come is a personal statement of "regret" - a popular half-apology that seems to stress the unhappy results rather than the person who put them into motion.

The apology dynamic, offering and accepting forgiveness, is today's model for reconciliation. The wrongdoer restores dignity to the aggrieved.

But an apology comes with an implicit question: Am I now unburdened from the things I have done? Suddenly, one is open to judgment with no guarantee of grace.

But there lies the apology's healing magic. It reverses the old power hierarchy so that the wrongdoer is humbled and the injured party momentarily rules.


On balance, the IRA apology conveys quite a lot of contrition. Noting the 30th anniversary of Bloody Friday, the IRA offers "sincere apologies and condolences" to the survivors of civilian dead and goes on to "acknowledge the grief and pain" of the families of the soldiers, police and other combatants.

The IRA asks for a quid pro quo later in the statement. "The process of conflict resolution requires the equal acknowledgement of the grief and loss of others," the statement implores. "It will not be achieved by creating a hierarchy of victims in which some are deemed more or less worthy than others."

There is a pleading tone to all of this, a sense that the tables have turned and, in an era of reconciliation, the IRA is being victimized.

So now the perpetrators are victims? On its face, that sounds like moral relativism taken to its insulting extreme. But isn't a wrongdoer who seeks redemption a victim of his own past misdeeds? What liberates him is the apology.

The response to the IRA apology has been mixed. "This does not wash with me at all," said Davy George, an employee of Northern Ireland's transport service.

Four of George's colleagues perished when one of Bloody Friday's car bombs detonated at Belfast's main bus depot. "I had no therapy or anything - I went back to work the next day and we tried to clear up just as best as we could. That was just the way it was then."

"I am overwhelmed by this statement," said Tom Donnelly, whose sister Margaret O'Hare, a mother of seven, was killed on the day. "I thought that it would never happen. I have read the statement. There are no `ifs' or `buts' in it; I derive a great deal of comfort from it."

It should not be surprising that attitudes vary; once the apology is given, it is the individual's prerogative whether to accept it.

Taking it in context

Some dismiss the IRA statement as cynical and self-serving. That seems harsh but, perhaps, it is not entirely churlish to note the context in which the apology was given.

The IRA has had a rough time lately. Three operatives are facing charges of training Colombia's FARC rebels, and the terror group has been linked to a recent break-in of Belfast's special police headquarters.

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