Professor Elazar Barkan, a political scientist, in his book The Guilt of Nations, has observed that there is a new international emphasis on morality which has been 'characterized not only by accusing other countries of human rights abuses but also by self-examination'. He writes of a new internationalism personified by leaders who have been ready to apologize and repent for gross historical crimes in their own countries and for policies that ignored human rights. 'Moral issues came to dominate public attention and political issues and displayed the willingness of nations to embrace their own guilt.' And, as I wrote a few months ago Professor McCall Smith looked at the same phenomenon as a philosopher and has seen the emergence of forgiveness as one of the great ideas of our new century.
I was reminded of this by events in London at the end of June which were part of the City of London Festival and particularly by what happened at St. Ethelburga's church in the heart of the City. This medieval church was largely destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1993 but has been restored as a centre for reconciliation and peace. I have a strong connection as my parents were married in that church and I was baptized there and my book No Enemy to Conquer was launched in the reconstructed nave.
An old friend of mine, John Bond, who was decorated by the Australian government for his services to the community through the activity of the National Sorry Day Committee, spoke at St. Ethelburga's in June alongside Mark Bin Bakar, who hosts Aboriginal Australia's most popular radio programme. Their subject was 'The Power of Public Apology'. The Sunday Telegraph, helped draw a large audience for the event by making it a lead in a diary story about the London Festival, with the headline, 'Chance for bankers to hear apologetic talk'.
I had the chance thirteen years ago to be present in Australia on National Sorry Day where nearly a million Aussies signed 'sorry books' and called for the government to apologize to the Aboriginal people for 'the stolen generations', that is, to the Aboriginal children who were taken from their mothers. The government's refusal to respond generously led on to the creation of the National Sorry Day Committee, and, after many years of dedication to the task, to the new government apologizing unreservedly on 13 February 2008
Bin Bakar, whose own mother was snatched by the authorities, said that some Australians denied that this ever happened and the apology by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd 'told Aboriginal people, “You were right”. It freed us to heal and move forward.'
Bin Bakar, who was chosen as Aboriginal Person of the Year 2007, said that the Elders of his community had chosen the native hibiscus as a symbol of the stolen generations because of its capacity to survive in harsh conditions and its colour, mauve for love and forgiveness. They had recently passed a motion that it should represent the suffering of the British 'orphan' children sent to Australia and other Commonwealth countries without the consent of their families.
John Bond tells me that St. Ethelburga's was delighted with the event and has ideas for a project aimed at enlisting the City of London in building the English-Irish relationship. The year 2014 is a significant date for the City as it is the 400th anniversary of the charter under which Derry/Londonderry was established as a centre from which to supply and protect the English who were settling in the area evicting Irish occupants. The charter was given by the King to four City of London livery companies, who provided the funding for the enterprise. So this might be a good date to work toward.
I tell the story of National Sorry Day and the subsequent apology by Prime Minister Rudd in No Enemy to Conquer.