How far back should retrospective government apologies go?

Now that Enda Kenny has apologised to the victims of the Magdalene laundries scandal in Ireland, Claudia Tomlinson asks how far back retrospective government apologies should go.

Now that Enda Kenny has apologised to the victims of the Magdalene laundries scandal in Ireland, which saw thousands of women with social problems detained and used for forced labour, the question of the value of such apologies can be examined.

Between 1922 and 1996, approximately 10,000 women and girls suffered degrading, humiliating and abusive treatment at the hands of the Catholic nuns who ran the institutions. The value of this apology to the victims, and survivors, who often experience long term trauma symptoms, is unlimited.

The wrongdoing they experienced can be alleviated through the act of a nationally authoritative figure validating their experience.

As with many parliamentary apologies for historical abuses that are either government-sponsored or where the government is clearly complicit, this national apology had to be dragged out reluctantly from the Irish government.

What are the reasons, then, for this reluctance?

Of course, sitting governments do not want to be held accountable for acts that it was not directly responsible for, particularly if the act took place when a different party was in power. Compensation payments can be considerable, and in this case, the government has rightly agreed they can be paid to survivors to cover the cost of counselling, and welfare services.

An apology for a historical wrong can also jeopardise a government’s current political standing, however the incumbent Fine Gael- Labour coalition government should mean the risk is shared between the two parties, thus increasing their willingness to apologise.

What are the benefits to governments in making national apologies for historical wrongs, and why are apologies made in some instances and not others?

David Cameron has issued several apologies on behalf of the British government in a relatively short time in office. The first followed the publication of the Bloody Sunday shortly after becoming prime minister.

He then apologised to the families of the Hillsborough disaster, and more recently for the suffering and neglect at the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, after the publication of the Francis Inquiry report.

All of these apologies were issued on behalf of the government.

The gusto with which Cameron delivered them can leave no doubt that he is confident about the political benefit for himself and his party, given the grandeur of the gestures.

So is sorry no longer the hardest word? How far back should governments go? What about international historical abuses?

No doubt sitting governments will seek to draw the line somewhere as, given the adventures of the British government overseas in the last two hundred years alone, David Cameron would spend every Wednesday lunchtime repenting at the dispatch box.

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