Sorry is not enough

The complexity and pain of history need explanations, not apologies
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Shiva Naipaul once described sitting on a bus in Africa when an earnest English woman got on, sat down and began apologising to her embarrassed black neighbour for the imperialist sins of her fathers. Getting up to leave, she kissed him on the cheek and dismounted, wreathed in smiles and self-satisfaction, while the whole bus watched this string of unwitting solecisms with undisguised contempt.

I am reminded of this scene when I think about the 400 Christian penitents who arrived in Jerusalem on Thursday for the 900th anniversary of the city's sacking at the hands of the first Crusader army. Calling themselves a "pilgrimage of apology", they declared: "We deeply regret the atrocities committed in the name of Christ by our predecessors. Forgive us for allowing His name to be associated with death." The assumptions this statement makes are sweeping, to say the least. It raises the issues of responsibility and expiation, and of historical memory as something easily recaptured and negotiated with enough right thinking.

In fact, there is currently a historiographical preoccupation with what we choose to remember and how we remember it. Like so many fashions, it began in France, crystallised in Pierre Nora's work Sites of Memory. "Memory" is now established as a hot historical concept. In many ways this was welcome; it seemed more relevant than the craze for inflicting terms from post-Freudian analysis on the phenomena of historical consciousness, whereby the actions and attitudes of whole peoples or classes were explained by terms such as "compensation", "alienation" or "repression", originally coined for operations of the psyche. But, poring over the mechanisms of memory, we quickly come back to that quintessential revelation from the Viennese couch: guilt. And to some simple souls the next logical step seems to be apology.

Thus the cavalcade winding its way to the Holy Land to apologise to Arabs and Jews; thus the Pope apologising for a predecessor's treatment of Galileo; thus the Queen apologising to the Maoris for the expropriation of their land in 1863; thus Blair's apology to the Irish people for the way the British government mishandled the 1840s famine.

Significantly, that last episode was quickly oversimplified into "apologising for the Famine", which implied that the British had actually caused it, as well as being to blame for culpable maladministration - thus raising a question that, in historiographical and political terms, can only be called a hot potato.

But is it logical for Blair to assume responsibility for the decisions of the Whig governments of 1846-48? Paddy Ashdown is the nearest thing to a lineal descendant of Lord John Russell, in party terms, and Margaret Thatcher is, in terms of economic policy.

It is easier to assign guilt, and atone for it, when the historical distance is not so great. But where do apologies stop? There is plenty of room for them within the politics of Ireland itself, but Bertie Ahern has not - for instance - suggested apologising to the Protestant population of the Republic for Eamon de Valera's denial to them of the rights of contraception and divorce. Nor do they expect it (I hope). It is hard to see Mr Ahern as directly accountable for the attitude towards Catholic social teaching taken by his party's leader before he was born: nowadays he lives happily with a woman not his wife, who is accepted as his official consort. This probably gives more general satisfaction than any public apology could.

The nearer in time the historical issue, the less easy it seems to find someone prepared to apologise. If apologies are in order for past unhappiness in Irish life, it might seem logical for the Catholic hierarchy to offer a coherent and sweeping apology for its toleration of abusive clerics in schools and children's homes, since many senior churchmen still in office appointed and sustained the malefactors and ignored their victims. Yet, rightly or wrongly, they have not seen the need.

As to Northern Ireland, apologising is not yet in fashion, although there was a laudable move by loyalist ex- terrorists to ask forgiveness for the suffering they had caused. To judge from recent events, demonisations and the rehearsal of ritualised memories still hold sway, rather than any desire to purge such images through expiation.

If apology seems a rather questionable therapy for historical traumas of long standing, how about treating them psychologically by acts of communal remembrance? For historical memory also raises the subject of commemoration - again, a subject which has been alluringly put on the catwalk by the masters of Parisian intellectual couture. Made the rage (though not originated) by the great revolutionary bicentennial bash of 1989, there have been conferences on commemorationism, studies of memorial sculpture, analyses of the concept of centenaries.

Again, there are Irish parallels, with the commemorations both of the Famine, in 1996, and of the 1798 Rising, last year. In the 1940s, the actual centenary of the Famine was marked by a government-funded programme of folklore-retrieval and a heavyweight volume of essays. But the 150th anniversary, three years ago, was marked by an effort to highlight grief, pain and guilt, driven by the idea that empathy could be achieved with the long-dead victims, and a therapeutic catharsis brought about. The language of popular psychotherapy was used, and the issue promoted by an alliance of journalists, rock stars and local political wheeler- dealers. A performance artist stood and wept in public, for days on end. "Survivor guilt" and "cultural loneliness" stalked the land, famine museums were opened, famine diaries rediscovered and published.

It was a significant phenomenon, demonstrating Irish people's engage- ment with their history, and there were valuable pay-offs: some important research, worthwhile conferences and a shift towards a concentration on the role of the British government. Yet the commodification and politicisation of the issue obscured as much as it illuminated.

The same was true of the commemorations last year of the unsuccessful but galvanic rebellion of 1798. They were held in order to "benefit the country tourist-wise", with heritage trails, tea towels, videos and son- et-lumiere reconstructions, including restaged battles (fighting is more fun than starving). There was a well-meant determination on the part of government spokespeople to play down the contemporary sectarian dimension of the event and celebrate it as an occasion when all Irish traditions came together in a pluralist, modern-minded, secular initiative to create a kind of ideal Euro-Ireland before its time.

Certainly, some of the rhetoric of the rebels was in line with this; certainly, the existing religious differences were exploited by the British government in its suppression of the Rising. But the attitude of some commemorationists was determinedly present-minded: 18th-century references to a "Republic" and a "Senate" were equated with today's institutions, and the revolutionary project described as "exactly like what John Hume calls an agreed Ireland today". The 1798 Rising, we were told, presented "an available, generous and permeable space" to be "occupied" by the Irish people in a life-enhancing manner, linked somehow to the rhetoric of the peace process. But it is hard to believe that traumatic history can be re-experienced as a feel-good sensation.

Nor is historical process a kind of time-travelling computer menu, to be clicked on selectively, as high-profile re-enactments, apologies and commemorations imply. It goes with a fashion for theme-park reconstructions and history-as-entertainment, along with the arrogant idea that there can be an "end to history".

It also too often involves a dictatorial political agenda from the powers that be. What response is a historical apology supposed to elicit? As far as the apologiser is concerned, it seems to be inspired by a mixture of narcissism and public relations. The (supposed) descendants of the victims are hardly likely to be any readier to forgive - or forget.

After the oversimplifications and illogical pieties that surround the business of "memory" these days, it is hard to disagree with a suggestion from the Irish literary critic Edna Longley, uttered at the end of commemorations last year: for politicians, the next step should be to erect a monument to Amnesia and forget where they put it. And historians might devote themselves to reminding their public that the continuums and inheritances of history are matters of complex descent. Even if apologising is easier than explaining.

Roy Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford University.