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.

Marty and Peter: Friends Again?

Last week they were at loggerheads over On the Runs. Peter threatened to resign because Marty had done a secret deal behind his back. Marty said Peter was causing a fuss about nothing and was just being silly.

This week Marty and Peter are in America and when they met some nice people from the telly they had their picture taken with them. Suddenly they were “Friends” again. martyandpeter

Jim and Jamie will not be happy with that. They say Marty is not a nice man and if they were photographed with him at all they would refuse to smile because you don’t do that kind of thing when bad men are around.

Welcome to the bewildering world of Northern Ireland politics where nothing is ever all that it seems – and the latest frenzy on social media is around First and Deputy First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness posing with Courteney Cox the Friends actress and her partner Johnny McDaid from Snow Patrol.

So how is it that Robinson and McGuinness who were in crisis melt down last week can now be so apparently relaxed together and about to watch some movies with A List celebrities?

That simply would not happen anywhere else. In Britain, for example, where political differences are actually quite small in these days of “grabbing the centre ground” hostilities are still maintained, at least outwardly. I can’t imagine for one moment Ed Miliband for example, going to the pictures with David Cameron, nor would Ed Balls go on a date with George Osborne, never mind commissioning a PR shot before doing so.

But this is Northern Ireland, remember, and our economy is, well let’s be kind and say weak. So we need our political leaders to show a united front and go out and do what is necessary to get trade and investment. So our leaders smile and pose together. We take our election posters down for the Giro d’Italia and paint our derelict shops so that they look like thriving businesses.

Full credit to them for all that. They are bringing in events and trade and business and that, of course is good and worthy of praise. And all those nice Americans will say to one another when they have gone: “Well they have their differences, and peace is a long, long road, but, my, do they work well together and when you meet them they are actually great craic! ”muppets

But then we think of home, where the only rule of the political game is tribal intransigence. And we are still reeling from the On The Runs letters controversy which has caused legitimate widespread hurt to victims.

It just seems so bizarre. We know the reality and, from whatever political perspective you come from, it doesn’t wash to be saying one thing at home and then delivering different messages, albeit via a photocall abroad.

We are worried about what the future holds, for those who have suffered and for those who have not, but just want a decent future, in an economy that works, and freed from the scourge of bitterness and hate and we are concerned about what will happen when they get home.

We see our politicians in all camps indulging in lowest common denominator politics because they believe we will always vote on strict tribal lines when it comes to elections. History is on their side on that debate.

But we do need jobs and investment. We need to deal with the past and learn to get on in the present. And we need both to stop fantasising about some mythical united Ireland when such an entity is an economic impossibility, and also stop pretending that Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley when the citizens of said borough think we are strange and alien and most certainly do not share that view.

Interestingly the Friends picture was not taken by a photographer employed by a newspaper but by a Belfast agency that was presumably directly commissioned for the purpose by the Northern Ireland government and accompanied a press release. So I presume it was officially sanctioned and signed off as such, much like the picture of the pair with the Muppets that caused so much hilarity a few years ago.

I have no problem with that. I just wish that the image so carefully cultivated for overseas audiences were to become a reality here. Soon.

The alternative is playing to the lowest common denominator, reprising the whataboutery politics in which we specialise, and drifting slowly, but inexorably, into a new era of conflict, mutual hatred and economic stagnation. No jobs, no hope, no future.