Sorry – the hardest word but is it enough?

On Saturday 3rd March Brian Rowan reported in the Belfast Telegraph on the  challenge Sinn Fein’s national chairman, Declan Kearney, brought to the IRA to say ‘sorry’ not for the war but for the hurt caused by all its armed actions. Sorry, it has been said, is among the hardest of all words to say but it is also said that sorry is one of those words that has transformative power. Even the British government knows that sorry can change things these days. Kearney said:

“Regardless to the stance of others, we should recognise the healing influence of being able to say sorry for the human effects of all actions during the armed struggle,… All sensible people would wish it had been otherwise; that these events had never happened, that other conditions had prevailed. The political reality is those actions cannot be undone, or disowned. A deep suspicion remains within unionist communities towards republicans due to the legacy of the armed struggle. This is a time for republicans to free up our thinking, to carefully explore the potential for taking new and considered initiatives in the interests of reconciliation.”

Kearney’s challenge has yet to be publicly responded to by the leadership of the Republican Movement in the sense that we have not yet heard how, or even if, they will move to such an apology –  a ‘sorry.’ But Kearney’s article in An Phoblacht has engendered much conversation. Rowan, rightly I think, situates this article and the idea it transmits into the public domain as part of the Republican Movements process to engage beyond ceasefire with political realities and with the process of reconciliation.

I cannot yet let go of my belief that there are Republicans who believe that this process of reconciliation will lead to everyone joining ‘their side’. But that is in no way to suggest that they are disingenuous. The truth about us all is that we hope, in the inner recesses of our being, that reconciliation will mean that everyone comes to see it ‘my’ way. That’s why it takes a big heart and a sturdy character to  become involved in reconciliation. The deepest human fears have to be faced in that process – the fear that you might have been wrong all along, that your view of the world might have been compromised by your own prejudices and that it is you that will have to do the changing. But what the process of reconciliation offers is, in the short-term, companions with the same worries about the process and, in the longer term, a more robust view of the world developed through engagement and shared across a broader base of people. That means a developing society which is more likely to cohere even when under stress. So suspicion of Republican engagement in a process of reconciliation is natural. In that sense none of us is above suspicion when it comes to what we want out of the process.

Ironically a willingness to say sorry is at least to credit enemies with a humanity that isn’t always attributed to them. It is to look someone in the eye whom you were once prepared to dehumanize and injure at best and at worst murder.

It would be churlish to look to the Republican political agenda as evidence of a devious game in play. That political agenda is made clear by Kearney elsewhere:

Our political strength in the North remains solid; it has provided the momentum for our national project in recent years. But there is still untapped electoral and party-build potential.
The objective in the North must be to maximise our electoral performance. However, in learning from our experience of the last four years, a step change is needed as to how Sinn Féin uses our political authority and power in the institutions.
The party’s strategic position in the North has grown out of national and democratic struggle. Our political strength now needs refocused upon the growing primacy of economic and social issues. Beyond the Northern elections we need to bring forward a coherent political strategy for delivering change in government and ensuring maximum effectiveness in local councils. What next for Sinn Fein? By Declan Kearney March 4th 2012

So the attempt at ‘sorry’ is not to be snubbed. But it is also true that sorry is not enough and for some people it will never be enough and can never be enough. Sorry doesn’t repair the world. Sorry doesn’t bring back that which has been lost. Sorry doesn’t right the wrongs and rebuild the broken. The limitations of ‘sorry’ have to be acknowledged, even if it is the hardest word. Yet it holds transformative power at political and social levels for it allows people to begin to look each other in the eye and to acknowledge a shared humanity which had to be denied to keep the war going and which is often still denied in what are less deathly but neverhtheless sectarian circumstances. When we debase each other using words like ‘scum’ then we dehumanise. Sorry is a humanising word and that is a good place to start.

Unlike Harold Good I don’t believe that what Kearney said has to be responded to without suspicion. I believe that suspicion is crucial in the process of saying sorry and it is crucial that the sorry sayers face the suspicion that others have. Otherwise the sorry doesn’t mean very much and its healing power is decreased. What is important, though, is that suspicion doesn’t dull anyone to the intention for something new and to the possibility of a new hope, however fragile it might be, of a reconciling society.

We should not forget all that sorry acknowledges

– that there was one offended against

– that hurt has been caused

– that there is recognition of harm done

– that there is repair needed and this is an offer for that repair to begin.

Sometimes, in mediation practices for example, reparation is offered along with the sorry but always with the recogntion that things can never go back to the way they were. My personal belief is that this is a crucial thing to be said, over and over again – that things cannot be made right, that the past cannot be restored, that nothing can fill the gap left by one who has gone. Sometimes people are held back from responding to an offer of repair because they know things can’t be made right and they don’t want to be part of a pretence – so sorry should never be viewed as an attempt to make right or put back. Rather sorry is an attempt to begin repair work which will take people to somewhere new.

Equally it is true to say that sometimes people resist responding to sorry because they cannot let go of sorrow, grief and mourning because it so strongly attaches them to their lost loved one. It is a complex picture but without the clear acknowledgement that sorry does not, cannot and is not intended to be an attempt to gloss over what happened then the possibilities that saying sorry open up can always be resisted. The chink of light can be shut out and the transformative power of sorry can be lost. For some people in this society we must respect that choice.

For others there has to be liberty and courage to respond.


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