Brendan Hoban’s weekly Western People column – the doubtful currency of apologies.

Apologies are a dubious currency in Covid era

Western People column


As we edge towards the end of a second COVID lockdown, we look back and look forward. Back to the almost 3,000 people who have lost their lives on the island of Ireland and the 120,000-plus who have contracted the coronavirus.

Back to the thousands more whose jobs or businesses have been lost or are at risk. Back to the medical and other personnel on the front line, ritually placing health and wellbeing at risk. Back to all whose lives have been significantly diminished by lack of contact with loved ones and the stresses and strains of an enforced isolation.

We look forward as well to a modicum of normality as shops open and a version of Christmas makes a fleeting appearance to re-assure us that God is in his heaven, that Santa Claus is on his way and that Mayo are in Croke Park once again tilting at the alluring prospect of an All-Ireland victory. And we look forward as well to the proximity of normality now that (at this time of writing) not one but three vaccines promise a more secure future.

We can even begin again to use Julian of Norwich’s famous aphorism: All will be well and all manner of things will be well.

When the history of these COVID times is written, lessons will be drawn from the mix of attitude and perspective – everything from the grotesque irresponsibility of those (like the anti-mask brigade) who refuse to take medical advice in the bizarre belief that the coronavirus is a conspiracy by a secret elite to form a new world order to the extraordinary force for goodness unleashed by local volunteers who helped the aged and the isolated to survive the lockdowns.

And somewhere in the footnotes of this history will be chapters devoted to those who stumbled into very public breaches of the public health protocols and who paid for their indiscretions, notably those caught in what have been dubbed ‘Golfgate’ and ‘RTÉ-gate’.

It was inevitable that those who have been scrupulously attentive to respecting the protocols put in place by the authorities would be appalled and feel cheated when others have been found to flout them. More frustrating still is when the culprits are those in responsible positions, sometimes even decision-making positions. Worse still again is when there’s a perception that a culture of preference pre-disposes the offender to imagine that the rules don’t apply to them.

In fairness, the Clifden culprits put up their hands, accepted responsibility for their laxity, made the necessary apologies and have all suffered for their social sins.

This followed the relevant authorities instituting investigations as did the Supreme Court into Justice Séamus Woulfe, when a former chief justice Susan Denham, was asked to head that particular inquiry. Curiously though, while Denham’s findings were clear – nothing criminal was involved and sacking Woulfe would not be a proportionate response to his indiscretion – the present chief justice, Frank Clarke seemed unhappy with the verdict and for a time there was a sense that no one was quite clear on what was happening. The resulting confusion was no credit to the chief justice, the Supreme Court, lawyers or the law.

The others involved in Golfgate put their hands up and paid high prices for their thoughtless indiscretions and poor judgement. Apologising, resigning and leaving the pitch seemed the cleanest and most acceptable way of retaining personal dignity.

That lesson was learned by those involved in RTÉ-gate when the most abject and humbling apologies were read into the on-air record. There were no resignations (at least to date) though investigations are, it is reported, proceeding. There is too a general sense that, in Ms Denham’s words, resignations would not be ‘appropriate’. Thoughtless? Yes. Bad judgement? Yes. Irresponsible? Yes. RTÉ’s news reputation damaged? Yes.

But, is that it then? Does this mean that unlike Golfgate, where those involved have all suffered to a greater or less degree because of their attendance in Clifden, that those involved in RTÉ-gate can escape courtesy of an apology and a bit of tut-tutting from the Director-General of RTÉ?

The truth is that apologies (on their own) are now of doubtful currency. People are now ritually apologising all over the place (and for everything) and the growing perception is that many apologies are self-serving, as in court when the guilty party is trying to limit the length of a sentence.

Unless there is some penalty for indiscretions (as in Golfgate and RTÉ-gate) people tend to be unconvinced by apologies that have the fingerprints of public-relations gurus all over them. Words, on their own, even impressive words, don’t do it. Especially with public figures in the media and in politics. Do as I say not as I do is a particularly difficult sweet for the public to suck on, especially in the middle of a pandemic. And especially when an impression is created that one law applies to the elite and another to the man or woman in the street. As with Golfgate, so it should be with RTÉ-gate, including a clear and obvious penalty.

Having said that, there’s something primeval and primitive about the way the pack gathers when an injured quarry is cornered. With politicians, it’s par for the course, a heaven-sent opportunity to embarrass, even sometimes to eviscerate their opponents. For many others, including the sometimes strange denizens of the social media world, the hunt for blood is palpable. We can be better than this.


Copies of my new book, ‘A Priest’s Diary’, are now available at €15 from all local bookshops in Mayo or online from




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