Sorry Is Not the Hardest Word

Is it ever a good idea for politicians to admit to mistakes and say sorry? Some political commentators say that it is not a good idea. They argue that it is a sign of weakness, especially in leaders and that it creates a precedent, damaging their image.

I’ve never really understood this and have come to believe that political spin doctors live in a parallel universe.

In this strange other world politicians are always “on message”. They parrot off the same lines when interviewed by the media, regardless of the questions they are asked. Indeed many seem to have a genuine problem answering questions at all. When it comes to political opponents everything is cut and dried: ie they are wrong about everything, and we are always right.

And as for having done anything wrong, well that never happens: everything that isn’t working in the world, except perhaps the weather, is the direct responsibility of “the last government” or whoever else it is that disagrees with them.

I’m not alone in finding this irritating. Political engagement is falling off right across the western world. Fewer and fewer people are active in politics than ever before and in most elections where there is an option not to vote, those who choose not to take part outnumber those who support the “winning” party. That was certainly the case in the recent European elections in Northern Ireland and, indeed, right across the UK. Even if you were to add together votes for our two largest parties they would still struggle to hold off the army of the disillusioned, apathetic and disaffected who chose not to vote at all.

This trend of switching off from politics is growing and is causing increasing concern. There has been a lot of research carried out into it and, strangely enough conclusions include that people are fed up with watching and listening to politicians shouting at each other. They don’t like it when they evade straightforward questions and they also think that politicians should be performance-managed, in that they should be held accountable for their failings and not allowed to blame them on others.

So when you step back and think about it, it is this strange, mysterious world of the spin doctor that has to be at least partially responsible for the decline in support for and participation in politics. Funny that, isn’t it?

In the real world we acknowledge that people (even, dare we say it, politicians) make mistakes, some of them absolute whoppers, and, generally speaking if they apologise for them and do everything they can to make amends, we forgive them. After all we make mistakes too, it is part of being human.

So in that context it was good to see First Minister Peter Robinson apologising for the ill-judged remarks he made about Muslims last week. A few careless phrases ended up getting broadcast around the world, damaging both the office of First Minister, the image of Northern Ireland and denting our efforts to get foreign investment. It was also less than helpful in a place which is currently plagued by racially motivated attacks. He chose his words clumsily and he was, quite rightly castigated for that.

To make a public apology, albeit rather late in the day, was the right thing to do. It took courage and Peter Robinson deserves credit for it, and I for one, respect him for it. The test now, of course is for him and all his colleagues across the Executive to put in place a strategy to make sure that people from ethnic minorities here are cherished, protected and better understood.

So has Peter Robinson created a precedent? I certainly hope so. There are plenty of people in politics here and elsewhere who would enjoy a lot more respect if they were gracious enough to apologise when they foul up instead of trying to bluster their way through.

And if that were to happen more often then maybe the rest of us, who make mistakes all the time, would actually like them more for it. A little bit more humanity and humility would do no harm whatsoever in the current political climate.