Blog: Public Apologies and the Banking Crisis in Ireland – Summary Results of a Public Opinion Survey
Project team member Prof Shadd Maruna has authored this blog to accompany the release of the research report of the same name, which can be accessed here.
With the launch of this report, we are thrilled to finally start to release some of the very preliminary and descriptive results from our 2017 survey of the general public across the island of Ireland, north and south, as part of this ESRC project on public apologies. The survey, carried out by Perceptive Insight, involved over 1000 face-to-face interviews with a stratified random sample of adults across every county in Ireland regarding what they think about the role of public apologies across a range of sensitive and controversial subjects.
Overall, we were surprised by how well respondents engaged with this topic and the level of support for (even demand for) further apologies across a range of issues clearly shines through in these results.
This first report focuses primarily on the responses regarding the banking scandals that shook Ireland in the past decade. Over three-quarters of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that public apologies by the banks or the State were an important part of moving on from the scandal. Yet, hardly any respondents can recall hearing a single apology from these groups, with only 6% remembering an apology from individual bankers and 12% remembering an apology from the Irish state. It is little wonder, then, that fewer than 5% of respondents felt that any of the responsible parties had adequately apologised for their role in the banking crisis to date.
One of the benefits of our survey is that it allows us to compare these responses across a variety of other social issues, including the institutional abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in Ireland and the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. Without drawing any false equivalencies between these very different aspects of Ireland’s recent history, it is interesting to note, for example that a larger percentage of survey respondents felt that the Church or the British State, for example, had adequately apologised for their roles in these other crises than the banks had for their role in the economic crash. The overall finding, however, is that the public overwhelmingly feels that we are owed more and better apologies across all of these different domains.
Co-investigator Dr Muiris MacCarthaigh has written this blog to accompany the project’s research report on ‘Apologies, Abuses and the Past: The Irish Banking Crisis.’ The full report can be accessed here.
Saturday 29th September marks the 10-year anniversary of one of the most controversial decisions in the history of the Irish state – the government’s late-night guarantee of all liabilities within domestic Irish banks. A fortnight before, totemic US bank Lehman Brothers went bankrupt due to its huge exposure to the American property market. This caused a freeze on inter-bank borrowing markets, and resulted in a global funding crisis to which Irish banks were badly exposed.
Citing fear of a run on bank deposits by customers, such as that which had occurred in Britain earlier in 2008 with Northern Rock, the then Fianna Fáil‐Green Party coalition government decided to provide a guarantee not only to ordinary depositors but, controversially, to all bond‐holders of the six main domestic financial institutions. The Oireachtas Banking Inquiry which took evidence through 2015 heard differing accounts of the decisions that led to the guarantee. This was made more difficult by the fact that no minutes of the meeting or drafts of the wording for the guarantee are to be found.
As the scale of the losses materialized in the guarantee’s aftermath, the Irish government pumped huge sums of money – much of it borrowed on international bond markets – into the banks. At one stage, then Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan claimed the bailout would constitute the ‘cheapest bailout in the world so far’. In fact the cost to the taxpayers of bank recapitalization quickly escalated to over €55bn.
The banking crisis and subsequent government guarantee have had enormous consequences for Irish politics, economy and society. It resulted in the ‘earthquake’ election of 2011 and the election that nobody won in 2016 which fragmented the Irish party system. It gave way to years of budgetary cutbacks and underinvestment in critical areas such as housing. And although Irish economic growth has recently recovered to outperform its EU peers, the legacy of national debt from the ‘lost decade’ remains high. The effects of the crisis have also been felt north of the border where sales of distressed property loans have courted controversy.
So what are the views of the victims of the Irish banking crisis? Technically, all taxpayers in the Republic of Ireland could be considered to be victims as a proportion of their annual tax continues to repay the cost of the bank bailouts. But there are many who have been more directly and severely affected by the crisis – the hidden stories of the crisis.
As part of an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) project titled ‘Apologies, Abuses and Dealing with the Past: A Socio-legal Analysis’, researchers from QUB have been speaking to those who have been asked to apologise for harms associated with the banking crisis, those who were directly affected by those harms and members of the general public across the island. In addition to conducting interviews and focus groups with bankers, victims and other stakeholders, the team conducted a nation-wide population survey during June and July 2017 with a stratified sample of more than 1000 individuals in 100 locations across all 32 counties.
The results identify that survey respondents strongly believe that:
* Public apologies are a necessary part of moving on from the banking crisis
* The parties responsible for the crisis have either not apologised at all or else have not adequately apologised
* Further apologies are needed
While apologies and statements of regret have in fact been made by some banks, 89% of the Irish public are unaware of them and 94% are not aware of any apologies by individual bankers. Only 4% believe that the Irish state has apologised adequately for its role in the banking crisis.
Interestingly, there are mixed views as to how personally helpful people believe direct apologies by banks to victims of the economic crisis might be, with only 41% of those surveyed believing them to be so. However 73% of respondents agreed that further apologies by those responsible for the banking crisis would be helpful to society as a whole. Only 4% agreed with the idea that “people should just move on”, with youngest respondents (between 18 and 24) the most likely to agree with this statement (with 10% agreeing to this). These views are also reflected in focus groups and interviews with victims of the banking crisis. As one interviewee said:
The fact that [the banks] let a property bubble come up and the economy crashed and everything else, [but] you are at fault if you don’t make your full repayments. So, they are pushing the guilt on you and that is what is affecting you for ten years, trying to pay this mortgage that you can’t afford. It’s that you are in the wrong if you are not paying it. So, for the banks to suddenly flip that and apologise and say, well those ten years actually where we were squeezing the life out of you, you weren’t in the wrong, we were. That would be too big a gap for them because: where is my money? Why were you squeezing three-quarters of my wages for the last few years, where do I get that back?
One of the most striking issues that has come to light through these interviews and focus groups is the extent of hidden or unseen suffering. Those who have lost homes, experienced family break-ups and lost loved ones to suicide are real victims of the consequences of the banking crisis. Although a decade has passed, the legacy of that crisis remains keenly felt across Ireland.
Co-investigator Prof Anne-Marie McAlinden has authored this blog to accompany the release of the research report: Apologies and Institutional Child Abuse. You can access the full report here.
From at least the 1990s, the issue of institutional child abuse has emerged as a major societal issue which has resonated internationally. High profile cases of historical institutional child abuse have arisen in the United States, Australia, Canada and across Europe. A range of official responses have been deployed including public inquiries or truth commissions, criminal prosecutions, monetary redress schemes as well as public apologies by church and state.
In the Republic of Ireland, the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, issued the first state apology to victims of institutional child abuse in May 1999. Beginning with the Ryan Report (2009), a series of Commission reports highlighted the systemic nature of abuse – physical, sexual, emotional abuse and neglect – within institutions run by the Catholic Church on behalf of the Irish State and the failure of the authorities to intervene.
In the wake of the publication of the McAleese Report into state involvement in the Magdalene Laundry regimes in February 2013, the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny issued a second fulsome apology to survivors, which was widely praised as a defining moment in his premiership.
In Northern Ireland, the report of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry was published in January 2017. To date, following the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive, its key recommendations with respect to public apology, memorialisation, and compensation for victims have not been realised.
At this timely juncture, this report examines the role of public apologies as response by state governments, religious orders and individual members of the clergy in the aftermath of institutional child abuse. As public expressions of acknowledgement, responsibility and regret for past harms, meaningful apologies can vindicate the experiences and suffering of survivors and contribute to their personal healing.
In addition to the restorative benefits for victims, at a broader collective level, apologies can also help society to come to terms with the past as symbolic acknowledgement of harm and visible sign of a break with the past, as well as a tangible reminder that such harms should not be allowed to recur in the future.
While there has been a plethora of public apologies to victims/survivors of institutional child abuse in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland by governments, civil authorities, as well as religious orders and individual clergy – often following public revelations of abuse or accompanying the announcement or conclusion of public inquiry proceedings – the sincerity and legitimacy of apologies in the context of such serious wrongdoing has often been questioned.
Indeed, as this report also highlights, there are many examples of ‘non-apologies’, or ‘apologising without apologising’, where the apology has fallen short in terms of its form, function and effect. These apologies have been judged as insincere, as they are viewed as an effort to placate the public or silence victims, rather than as a legitimate attempt to openly and explicitly redress wrongdoing.
One of the core tasks of this report is to examine the key elements of a meaningful apology for victims and survivors of institutional child abuse. While the academic literature varies in terms of precisely how these various elements are conceptualised, a sincere and legitimate apology would include the following: an explicit acknowledgement of wrongdoing; an acceptance of responsibility; an expression of remorse or regret; a promise of non-repetition; and an offer of reparation or corrective action.
Moreover, it is not only the content or language of an apology which may help determine its effectiveness or contribute to its perceived sincerity in the eyes of victims and the wider public. The context, performance and choreography of the apology – where it is delivered, when, how and by whom – also emerge as pivotal factors. Crucially, apologies are likely to be perceived as meaningful when they are delivered in a broader context and setting which demonstrate solemnity and significance as well as appropriate follow through – such as the setting out of clear mechanisms for truth, accountability, reform and redress.
However, there are a range of obstacles which may impede a meaningful apology which the report also highlights. These include the fear of legal or financial liability or reputational damage which can prevent offenders from accepting full responsibility for wrongdoing. For collective apologies, made on behalf of a whole organisation such as the Catholic Church or the state, lack of consensus among the leadership in terms of the precise language, form and performance of the apology can also thwart the construction and delivery of a legitimate and sincere apology.
Although meaningful apologies are not easy to deliver, they have been repeatedly cited as one of the highest priorities by survivors of historical institutional child abuse. The report highlights the competing tensions surrounding the construction and delivery of a legitimate apology which seeks to balance the often differing priorities of apologisers and victims/survivors. While words alone, without more tangible responses, are likely to be insufficient for victims, an apology often represents a first and necessary step to coming to terms with the past.