Monday 20 November 2017

For all political leaders 'sorry' is often the hardest word to say

Thomas Molloy

Thomas Molloy

THERE was a wonderful moment on Ryan Tubridy's first interview as host of the 'The Late Late Show' last September. Tubridy asked Taoiseach Brian Cowen whether he accepted any blame for the economic crisis following his years as finance minister.

Mr Cowen gave one of his typically graceless answers, saying he'd apologise if he thought he'd done anything to apologise for. It is a form of words popular with our political masters but it sparked one of the new presenter's best responses: "That's not really an apology."

Tubridy added: "I don't really know what that is. Do you apologise or not?"

No proper apology was forthcoming from Mr Cowen that evening but it is probably still the closest that we, in this country, have got to hearing the word sorry from anyone who ran the Department of Finance over the past decade.

Things were much the same over in Britain until yesterday evening when another finance minister turned prime minister, this time Gordon Brown, made an apology.

It may have been made rather late in the day and it may have been done in the middle of an election campaign, but at least it was straight forward.

"The truth is that globally and nationally we should have been regulating them more," Mr Brown told ITV television in an interview last night.


Then he ruined things a little by adding: "All the complaints I was getting from people was, 'Look you're regulating them too much'."

The kicker is interesting because it suggests that Mr Brown was listening to the wrong people and mixing with the wrong people -- the British equivalent of the tent at the Galway races perhaps? Even if Mr Brown was getting the wrong advice, he is still responsible. That's what leadership means.

An apology from a prime minister or a Taoiseach is a good starting point. Like most apologies in life, it is important because it is an indication that the person responsible accepts mistakes have been made.

In the past, Mr Brown has blamed the United States alone for the financial crisis and our leaders have blamed the markets and subprime mortgages even though most of the problems are the result of a local and toxic combination of non-existent regulation and a property bubble triggered by poor planning and absurd incentives for developers.

Of course neither Mr Cowen nor Mr Brown bear more than a small percentage of the overall responsibility for beggaring their countries. The seeds for the present chaos were laid long before they came to office in the deregulation of the Reagan and Thatcher years and the climate of laissez faire capitalism that followed.

The invention of complex financial instruments and the failure of the rating agencies and the banks to understand and manage the risk attached to the alphabet soup of CFDs and CDOs was another reason.

Still, now and again it is no harm for the men who promised lower taxes and better services to admit that they failed to live up to their promises.

Last night we saw such an apology on the other side of the Irish Sea, but, for now, the Taoiseach is still doing his best to imitate the actor Steve Martin. "An apology?" Martin asks at one stage. "Bah! Disgusting! Cowardly! Beneath the dignity of any gentleman, however wrong he might be."

Irish Independent

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