Glossary: When apologies are in order

WE HAVE had two important, perhaps even historical, apologies in the past week. First, the Protestant paramilitaries declared a ceasefire, expressing 'abject and true remorse' to the 'loved ones of all innocent victims'. Then, through the modern confessional of a Sunday newspaper, the Prince of Wales offered his own Apologia pro vita sua. They were rather different in tone, but both events were instructive about the political strategies of regret.

What was startling about the announcement from the Combined Loyalist Military Command was the vocabulary, rather than the content. After all, expressions of regret have become a commonplace in terrorist statements about misconceived operations, a disgusting spectacle in which the disciples of damage1 occupy themselves briefly with damage limitation.

But both 'abject' and 'remorse' struck a different note. You could easily quibble about 'innocent' (what court found any of these victims guilty?) but few people chose to, for fear of spoiling the moment.

And, to be fair, 'abject' did take some risks. Although it is often associated with regret and humility these days (you can say 'I'm abject' as a form of apology) neither of these is central to its meaning. Of the definitions given in the Oxford English Dictionary, none specifies a sense of regret or apology.

The word literally means 'cast aside' or 'cast down' (it derives from the Latin abjicere, to reject, throw aside), which strongly implies that whether you are abject or not depends on whoever does the casting. Regret is something only you can decide, being abject is a matter of other people's opinions. Other definitions in the OED include 'low, degraded, despicable, mean-spirited', all of which suggest exclusion and contempt. So there was a genuine element of submission, a bowing of the head, in the loyalist choice of words.

I don't think it is too cynical to detect an element of calculation, too, however sincere the sorrow. Someone (I think it was La Rochefoucauld) once said that 'we confess to our minor sins in order to conceal the major ones' but it is also true that the way we confess our major ones can have strategic2 purpose.

'Remorse' is interesting in this respect - a much harsher word than 'regret', which can easily imply a mere observance of social form. 'Regret' is what you say when you want to turn down a tiresome invitation, and it has always appeared inadequate in the case of IRA apologies. Remorse, on the other hand, still has sharp teeth, a fact conveyed by the etymology (remordere, to bite again). Seeing the tide flowing in the direction of contrition, the Loyalists found a subtle way to say 'We're sorrier than they are', which has always been another way of saying 'At heart, we're better than they are'.

Prince Charles has taken a different line entirely, reminding us of that other sense of apology, its definition as justification, explanation or excuse (the word derives from the Greek apologeisthai, to speak in one's own defence). The Prince is, somewhat defiantly, not sorry. We are told that 'he doesn't regret his co-operation', that he has no regrets about the publication.

This is the 'Piaf gambit3 ', a way of converting a disastrous mistake into evidence of your heroic fortitude (later refined by Frank Sinatra into 'regrets/ I've had a few/ But then again/ Too few to mention', which is insouciant rather than self-important). It is a difficult trick to bring off, virtually impossible if half your audience is already hostile.

In fact, even when the Prince uses the word 'regret' in his private letters there is something a little self-centred about it. 'I'm terrified sometimes of making a promise and then perhaps living to regret it,' he writes to a friend. Maybe it is too harsh to hear in this a concern only for his own future liberty of choice. But the absence of contrition in all that has been published, the sustained sense that the Prince feels himself to be above all a victim of circumstance, bends you towards that conclusion.

'Regret' has an obscure etymology, but there is a certain appropriateness in the suggestion that there may be a connection with the word 'greet', to weep or lament. In that sense, the Prince has many regrets, too many for us to ignore.

Whatever else his advisers have been doing, you cannot help feeling that they have missed a trick here, and they had an example in front of their faces, in that Loyalist statement. An apology, a proper self-blaming apology, can be an unusually powerful weapon. It places an obligation to forgive on those to whom it is delivered - it raises your stature even as you bend. If the Prince had simply said sorry, to a woman who was younger and supposedly more foolish when this miserable marriage was set in train, he would look a less sorry and abject figure now.

1 From the Latin damnum, loss or hurt.

2 From the Greek strategos, general. From stratos, army and agein, to lead.

3 From the Italian gambetto, tripping up.