A FUNDAMENTAL difference exists between remorse and regret, and we can thank Eugene Sheehy for demonstrating it -- and for doing so in a practical way, perhaps with an eye to influencing others to follow his example.
Regret carries no admission of responsibility. It can be self-serving: a platitude which allows the person expressing it to feel they have behaved correctly after an unfortunate happening.
Remorse, however, is an act of contrition implying some personal acceptance of failure. It suggests someone's conscience has been pricked, generating a desire to make amends.
In the former AIB chief executive's case, those pangs have led to a voluntary renunciation of around one-fifth of his company pension. It is not sackcloth and ashes, but neither is it a threadbare gesture.
Penitence is visible, even if it has a cut-off point. It is a far cry from self-sacrifice, but it contains elements of core decency -- not least because Mr Sheehy is probably resigned to the fact that nothing he says or does can ever put things right.
Many in similar circumstances would simply shrug and turn their faces away. Many in similar circumstances are doing precisely that.
The 58-year-old former banker, now studying at Trinity, has surrendered between €50,000 and €75,000 a year. This may be a drop in the ocean of our national debt, but it is a constructive gesture of self-denial, more eloquent than anything offered by other key players in the financial collapse.
It does not entitle him to a halo, of course. AIB had to be taken into state ownership with €20bn pumped into it, while a redundancy package led to 2,500 staff departures. So Mr Sheehy is lucky to get anything.
As are other bankers. Low profiles have been adopted in most cases by those who peered over the side of the crater they helped to cause before gulping and tiptoeing away.
By voluntarily accepting a reduced pension of €250,000 a year -- when legally he could not have been forced to waive the money -- Mr Sheehy acknowledges that collapse-era senior bankers have bloated and indefensible pensions. Even €250,000 remains bloated and indefensible.
Perhaps he had his arm twisted. But intense pressure has been applied to others, who proved to have rhinoceros hides -- Michael Fingleton's €1m bonus, plus gold watch, spring to mind. We're still whistling for them.
So credit where it's due: Mr Sheehy stepped up to the plate and threw down rather more than a rattle of coins. In announcing his handback, he appears to be indicating that he was on between €300,000 and €325,000. Beggars belief, when you think about it.
Meanwhile, upwards of 15 letters are going out to other retired AIB senior staff, and Mr Sheehy has made the case for a 20pc cut. But it's a case of waiting to see who listens to their inner voice and who has their fingers jammed in their ears.
The clawback shouldn't end at AIB. A swathe of bankers bailed out with not just golden parachutes but diamond-studded ones. Leading the list is Michael Fingleton: old Sticky Fingers himself.
He trashed Irish Nationwide, now merged into the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, before exiting with a pension pot of €27.6m. To put that in context, a pension fund needs €1.2m in it to provide an annual income of €55,000.
I'm not sure a begging letter would work in the case of Fingers, who has indulged in a little hand-wringing and a lot of hand-washing regarding the consequences of his mismanagement. His stance takes mental detachment to a new level.
Over at state-owned Irish Life and Permanent, a letter should also go to its former chief executive, Denis Casey. That institution had to be nationalised after he ramped it up to become the biggest mortgage lender at the peak of the boom.
He was also at the helm when the bank was involved in Anglo window-dressing its books at year-end in September 2008 during the back-to-back deposits scandal. Yet he left with a €1.25m severance package.
At Bank of Ireland, there appears to be no question of telling former executives their country needs them. A rather lordly position has been adopted: because it's only 15pc state-owned, the plebs can butt out.
But they lost the right to advance that argument when they were chauffeur-driven to Government Buildings as supplicants, on the night of the state guarantee.
Besides, Richie Boucher admitted last week that the bank used our money to bolster its pension fund.
BRIAN Goggin's departure was eased by a €650,000 annual pension. Even if the euro crisis, savaging annuity rates has whittled it back, his entitlements remain extraordinary. Time for him to take a long, hard look in the mirror. I wonder if he likes what he sees?
Two other individuals who could benefit from some meaningful atonement are Patrick Neary and John Hurley, Financial Regulator and Central Bank Governor respectively, both of whom draw down massive pensions in return for incompetence.
But alpha males, even in retirement, are slow learners. At least Mr Sheehy (a keen walker who did the famous Spanish pilgrimage, Camino de Santiago) is pointing the way -- the hope is that others will follow in his footsteps.
They might look askance at his route as a Via Dolorosa, because nobody likes to forego money.
However, remorse -- not regret -- is the only road to redemption.