If you want them to say sorry don't ask their government

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ONCE MORE THE apology season is upon us. An American President who apologised for medical experiments upon unknowing blacks has now apologised - well, almost apologised - for slavery. A British Prime Minister has apologised for the 19th-century Potato Famine in Ireland.

Some Australians (with the notable exception of their government) have just apologised to the Aborigines. And the Japanese have almost, but not quite, apologised for their horrific treatment of captured British war prisoners in the camps of South-East Asia.

But what can these formal acts of contrition achieve? And, beyond an inner-glow of self-righteousness and short-term political expediency, the answer, one must reluctantly conclude, is: nothing.

The apology, official and unofficial, is part of our confessional age. Admit the sin and it will be expunged from your record; the past will be set to rights and sweet reason will prevail. Confess to guilt over the Potato Famine today, and over Bloody Sunday tomorrow, and the way will be eased towards a settlement in Ireland.

Would that it were so simple, that unpleasant events could be wished away, airbrushed from the collective memory like Trotsky or Bukharin from a Soviet photograph of Lenin. Alas, apologies by governments, however well-intentioned, cannot do that, for the past is part of our present.

The divisions of Ireland and the brutalities visited upon British POWs on the other side of the world offer a common lesson: If apology and forgiveness are to mean anything, they must be at the level of the individual.

How inconvenient that must be for Tony Blair, so irritated by our national obsession with the past. Indeed, he must have reflected on the irony of the monarch of his future-oriented kingdom bestowing the Order of the Garter upon her guest, thus using mediaeval mumbo-jumbo to pour petrol on the flames of a controversy our Prime Minister devoutly wishes would disappear in the higher interests of trade, mutual affection and prosperity for all.

But just as only the capacity of the individual inhabitants of Northern Ireland to forgive the outrages visited upon their families and communities by their foes can turn the Good Friday settlement into a permanent peace, so it must be for the veterans and their captors to find their own accommodation.

Anything less would be akin to the eyes-lowered handshake of apology wrung from a boy found guilty of schoolyard bullying - a grudging truce that makes it no less likely he will pick the very same fight the next week.

And, you might ask, if Japan must seek a pardon, should we escape censure? This politics by gesture could continue ad infinitum, teetering between political correctness and downright absurdity.

If the Potato Famine, slavery and the treatment of British prisoners in South-East Asia, then why not public contrition to Wales for being forced into the Union, to Scotland for Culloden, indeed, to every country subjected to the attentions of Britannia Imperatrix?

After all, the soldiers were stationed in Asia 55 years ago to protect an empire imposed, unsought and unwanted, upon native populations reduced to second-class citizens in their own land. Have we apologised for that?

Perhaps, official remorse has been expressed. But in the hearts of individual British people - in other words the national subconscious - the Empire remains a source of pride not shame. No formulation of words from our rulers will make the slightest difference.

But it will be asked, what of the Germans? After all, they have apologised, and have we not made our peace with them? Indeed, we have, but not, I would argue, as a result of any formal statements on the part of the German government (and these have been legion), nor because of the huge sums paid by Bonn to compensate victims of the Nazi regime.

No, the decisive element has been the visible sorrow and sense of guilt of individual Germans - a trauma whose collective legacy is a country to this day scared of its own shadow.

When Chancellor Willy Brandt fell to his knees in 1970 before the monument to the victims of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, and when President Richard von Weizsacker delivered his famous speech of national expiation, asking why everyone went about their usual business as "the trains which rolled in the night" carried the innocent to the death-camps, both men were expressing not just their country's anguish but their own. Nie wieder - Never Again - is not a hollow slogan, but the deepest wish of almost every German. If Japan's post-war behaviour is a guide, it is the deepest wish of the Japanese people, too. The proof of repentance lies in deeds, not words.

The most fitting atonement for war and its savageries is to ensure they never occur again. The two most bellicose of this century's powers have become its most pacifist. Regret, sorrow, pain, contrition... it matters not which infinitely calibrated choice of words finally passes the lips of the Emperor or his government.

I would be the last to make light of the unspeakable sufferings of those veterans who turned their backs on the Emperor along the Mall and burned his country's flag. For the former prisoners who can forgive, I have boundless admiration. For those who cannot, I have equally boundless understanding.

How would I react in similar circumstances? Having never been put to such a trial, I simply do not know. What I do know however, is that the apology and the forgiveness which count are those freely arrived at between individuals, between he who inflicted misery and he who endured it.

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