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‘Abject and True Remorse’: Loyalism and the Politics of Regret in Northern Ireland

This article is part of a special section of ISIA, edited by Brice Dicksen. See the other papers in the section

Kieran McEvoy


This article examines the politics of apologies from loyalist armed groups. Using the CLMC 1994 ceasefire statement as a case study, it is based on original survey data; semi-structured interviews with ex-combatants, victims and others; and archival research. It also draws on the academic literature on apologies, transitional justice, political violence, historical institutionalism, literary criticism and the sociology of legitimacy and identity. It examines the broader role of apologies in post-conflict Northern Ireland before focusing on the political and historical context of the CLMC statement and its role as a palimpsest for subsequent loyalist engagement on legacy issues. It suggests that a close reading of the original statement and its afterlife reveals important apology-related themes concerning timing, presentation, leadership and truth recovery. Finally, the paper examines the vexed issues of collusion and criminality. It concludes that loyalists can exercise further agency and leadership through apologies before exiting the political stage.


In what is sometimes referred to as ‘the politics of regret’,Footnote 1 saying ‘sorry’ publicly has become a key feature of efforts by political leaders, senior clerics, corporate CEOs and other leaders to address past abuses.Footnote 2 Past-facing apologies have also featured prominently in post-authoritarian or post-conflict societies—becoming an important element of broader transitional justice toolkit processes.Footnote 3 Perhaps precisely because they are usually considered an ‘add-on’ in terms of dealing with the past, the issue of apologies has received much less sustained analysis regarding post-conflict Northern Ireland than other aspects of transitional justice in the region.Footnote 4 Instead, much of the academic and policy work on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland has focused on policing and investigations, truth recovery, reconciliation, victimhood, and particular high-profile issues such as the disappeared or more recently the drive by the current UK government to implement some form of amnesty and hamper effective investigations.Footnote 5 Aware of this lacuna, I have been working with colleagues for a number of years to better understand the role of apologies in addressing the past in Northern Ireland. The discussion below is therefore drawn from a range of sources over the past decade.

By way of background, from 2013 to 2015 I worked with colleagues at the Belfast-based NGO Healing Through Remembering (HTR), who established a baseline database on apologies drawn from newspaper sources in Northern Ireland. Drawn primarily from Northern Ireland newspapers, the latter included 93 statements of acknowledgement and/or apology on conflict-related events up to 2014. From 2016 to 2021 I led an interdisciplinary team based at Queen’s University Belfast on an ESRC-funded project that explored the use of apologies in addressing past harms in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland across three sites of harm—the conflict, institutional abuse and the banking crisis.Footnote 6 This project involved conducting 1,007 computer-assisted interviews with a stratified sample of the general population in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, 24 focus groups with a stratified sample of the general population and select individuals who had been directly affected by the harms under analysis.Footnote 7 We also conducted over 70 in-depth semi-structured interviews with perpetrators, victims/survivors, policy makers and other relevant stakeholders across Northern Ireland and Ireland between 2017 and 2021.Footnote 8 In addition, a much more extensive database of conflict-related apologies/statements of acknowledgement (416) was compiled.Footnote 9 An extensive interdisciplinary literature review on apologies was also commissioned. Ethical approval for the research was granted by the Law School Research Ethics Committee at Queen’s University Belfast.

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