Dr Lauren Dempster, Research Fellow, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

This blog post summarises key points from a presentation I gave at the SLSA’s 2018 conference in Bristol. The presentation drew on material from my upcoming book,[i]supplemented by insights from the project on which I am currently Research Fellow – Apologies, Abuses and Dealing with the Past: A Socio-Legal Analysis.[ii]

In March 1999, following years of campaigning by victims’ families, the Provisional IRA released a statement acknowledging its responsibility for ‘disappearing’ during the conflict in Northern Ireland. The statement – one of the Republican Movement’s first substantive statements on this issue – ended with the words: “we are sorry that this has taken so long to resolve and for prolonged anguish caused to the families.” Appended to the statement was a list of the names of nine victims, along with information that each was executed having been ‘court-martialled…and found guilty’ of either informing for the police or British Army, or stealing IRA weapons to use in robberies.[iii]

In my presentation I analysed this IRA statement through the lens of scholarship around what makes an ‘effective’ apology, examining issues of audience, harm, responsibility, acknowledgement and follow-through.

With regards audience, the offended party’s participation is neither necessary nor considered. The families of the ‘disappeared’ campaigned for the return of their loved one’s remains – there have been very few calls for an apology. Indeed, some family members have said that an apology is not something they would want or value.

Although the harm caused is clearly recognised in the statement, comments from family members, and others, suggest that the harm is too severe for any apology to be of use. As one senior Republican ex-combatant interviewed said: “There will always be the pain, and the suffering…and that can’t really be ameliorated by anything the IRA could say.”

The issue of responsibility is particularly problematic. The IRA statement falls short of Benoit and Brinson’s ideal of an acceptance of responsibility ’without attempting to diminish the undesirable consequences…suffered.’[iv]By including the list of reasons why the ‘disappeared’ were executed, and stating that some were IRA members executed for involvement in activities which either “jeopardised the struggle” or put other members at risk, we see the use of techniques of neutralisation to qualify these offences. The assertion that the execution of the ‘disappeared’ was not wrong in light of the circumstances presented is a form of ‘denial of the victim.’ Claims that these individuals posed a threat to the Republican Movement or its cause exemplify an ‘appeal to higher loyalties.’[v]  The statement does not – as an effective apology should[vi]– remove blame from the victims. Jean McConville’s son, Michael, is still waiting for a “proper apology,” one in which the IRA says “that the murder…was wrong, and she wasn’t an informant.”[vii]

At this point, the IRA statement looks like quite a ‘bad’ apology. There are however, two key elements which give strength to this statement. The first is acknowledgement. Often said to be a priority for victims, acknowledgement of the fate of the ‘disappeared’ is recognised internationally as an essential first step for loved ones, having emotional, practical, legal, and psychological benefits. The IRA’s acknowledgement was described by one of my interviewees as “amazing for the families [of those named] …an incredible step.”

The second meaningful element of this statement was that it detailed the establishment of, and progress made by, a “special unit under the command of one of our most senior officers” to locate the burial sites of the ‘disappeared.’ Without follow-through measures, apologies can be criticised as ‘empty rhetoric’ or politicking. Indeed, in focus groups carried out with the general population across Ireland (2017-2018) as part of the Apologies, Abuses and Dealing with the Pastproject, a frequent contribution has been that apologies are meaningless if the statement is not followed by demonstrative behavioural change or the provision of reparation to victims. Following the release of the IRA statement, the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (ICLVR) was established and the Republican Movement has engaged with it. To date, the remains of 13 of the 16 ‘disappeared’ have been recovered.

This 1999 statement was one element of the Republican Movement’s transition from silence and denial to acknowledgement and engagement with regards the issue of the ‘disappeared.’ This statement exemplifies how the perceived legitimacy of past violence can complicate efforts to apologise for that violence in the present. However, even a ‘poor’ apology can have value, if it directly responds to the needs of those harmed. In the case at hand, by acknowledging responsibility and detailing follow-through measures.

[i]Lauren Dempster,Transitional Justice and the Disappeared of Northern Ireland: Silence, Memory, and the Construction of the Past (Routledge 2018). This book is based on research funded by a Department for Employment and Learning Strategic Award awarded by Queen’s University Belfast.

[ii]This project is led by Professor Kieran McEvoy, Queen’s University Belfast and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ES/N010825/1).

[iii]‘IRA Investigation Locates Grave Sites’ An Phoblacht(1 April 1999)

[iv]William L. Benoit and Susan L Brinson, ‘AT&T: “Apologies are not Enough”’ (1994) Communication

Quarterly42:1, 75

[v]Gresham M. Sykes, and David Matza, ‘Techniques of Neutralisation: A Theory of Delinquency’ (1957) American Sociological Review22:6, 664. See also Lauren Dempster ‘The Republican Movement, ‘Disappearing,’ and Framing the Past in Northern Ireland’ (2016) International Journal of Transitional Justice10:2, 250.

[vi]See e.g. Martha Minow, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and MassViolence (Beacon Press 1998).

[vii]Marian Finucane in interview with Michael McConville, RTÉ Radio 1, 23 November 2013