In politics, Sorry often seems to be the hardest word

The inability of politicians to admit to making a mistake is misguided, does them no favours with voters and fuels conspiracy theorists of which there are plenty in this country.

Last week Minister Denis Naughten found himself at the centre of a political storm.  A report of a short phone call on his mobile 16 months earlier featured in an affidavit by the Director of Corporate Enforcement and landed the Minister in the Dail to make a personal statement and face questions.

Minister Naughten half embraced the dictum –“never apologise, never explain”.  His statement explained at length the circumstances surrounding the conversation but there was no regret, no apology.  I think he missed an opportunity to put the story away on day one.

Denis Naughten is an experienced and respected TD.  He is not adversarial in his style and his spell as an independent in opposition and as a Minister has been marked by a willingness to work with other members across the Oireachtas.  On Morning Ireland the day after the statement Mary Lou McDonald referred to him as “Denis” a couple of times while also calling for him to be sacked.  It suggested a level of personal regard and sympathy for the Minister.

He could have gone into the House and said “I made a mistake – it was an error of judgement but it had no material effect on any decision I subsequently made.  I learned a lesson and if the circumstances arose again I would act differently.”

Faced with that line, the opposition have little room to manoeuvre.  The natural human instinct is to accept an apology when it is offered.  Instead, Denis Naughten went for the “personal view” defence.  It gave the opposition a means to keep the controversy going.

Politics is adversarial by nature and as a rule you should never give you opponent a stick to beat you with.  In Denis Naughten’s case, the stick was there –he needed to disarm his opponents with an apology –not fuel their attack with a “personal view” line.

It seems that the penny dropped within twenty four hours when he said “I do sincerely regret expressing a view on it but I am absolutely clear that I said that I would abide by the recommendation of my officials”.

There is a general maxim that if you are in a crisis situation and you are going to apologise, you do it early and sincerely.  An apology can often be the point at which the story turns away from the action that created it and on to what’s next.

The public are generally very forgiving when a genuine apology is offered.  They also forget political events very quickly.

I suspect the most enduring consequence of last week’s events will be that Denis Naughten’s voicemail box will see more use.

By Gerry Naughton

Client Director at Drury | Porter Novelli