Monday 16 November 2009

Saying sorry for history

There is a lot of predictable disdain about plans by Gordon Brown to apologise on behalf of the British state for the appalling way in which child migrants to Australia were treated. I first learnt of their story when David Hinchliffe was part of our shadow health team in opposition in the mid-nineties, and was working with the Child Migrants Trust to lead a parliamentary drive to get them greater recognition.

And watching the joy on the faces of so many of those who were at Kevin Rudd's apology in Australia, there can be no doubt that Brown should do the same here. There are parallels with the extent to which the abuses of some Catholic clerics - and the cover-ups of church and state - are being painfully but necessarily brought to light in Ireland and elsewhere.

Acknowledging recent historical wrongs matters. In Ireland, Kevin Myers has long campaigned for proper recognition of the soldiers from the South who fought - and often died - for Britain in the two world wars. News that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has been able properly to commemorate their sacrifice at Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, and that Sinn Fein has joined in ceremonies to honour them in Northern Ireland is a sign of political maturity, as Myers acknowledged in a powerful piece in the Irish Independent last week. [Hat tip: Slugger]

Of course, the sneerers say that governments are far slower to apologise for 'wrongs' today. If by that, they mean decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan, or economic decisions taken in Ireland, the difference is that such subjects are widely debated and the topic for many inquiries and court cases. Few heard of the child migrants - or spoke publicly about clerical abuses - until the 1990s, and few in Ireland wanted to honour those who died particularly in the Second World War until President Mary Robinson started to mark Remembrance Day. Yet by accepting past mistakes and omissions, governments not only validate the experiences of those involved, they also set clearer parameters for the future.

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