Last month, within days of one another, two Irish men resigned their respective positions amid allegations of abuse and harassment. The public statements that they issued had some minor differences and some striking similarities.
The political resignation
On Thursday 16 November, Fine Gael member Barry Walsh resigned as vice-chair of his party’s Executive Council. He had used Twitter to send a stream of misogynistic abuse to a number of women, including actor and comedian Tara Flynn and FG TD Kate O’Connell. Walsh’s position became untenable when Deputy O’Connell presented the tweets at a meeting of her parliamentary colleagues, triggering an internal disciplinary inquiry.
Walsh’s letter of resignation from his unpaid party position was made available to press. He explained that he resigned ‘out of respect for the membership of the Fine Gael party, and for the Taoiseach in particular’, rather than out of contrition for his actions. The targets of his abuse were afforded no such respect. Indeed, they were not mentioned at all. Walsh focused instead on what he calls a ‘trial by media’ and the effect that the public outcry has had on his personal relationships.
The performer’s resignation
Then, that Sunday (19 November), the comedian Al Porter resigned from his broadcasting role at Today FM. This was the result of four men, who had encountered Porter in various professional and social settings within the comedy and performing arts world, going on the record in the Irish edition of the London Times with allegations that Porter had sexually assaulted them.
Porter’s statement, issued via his own Twitter account, apologised for ‘distress [he] may have caused’ and ‘anyone [he] may have genuinely offended’ in ‘light-hearted and good-natured circumstances’. Again, the resignation was not presented as a consequence of his actions, or an act of contrition. Instead, Porter resigned because he felt he needed ‘time away from the spotlight after decades in the entertainment industry’.
Where do the statements differ? Walsh was responding to use of abusive language, as evidenced by tweets and witness and victim statements, while Porter was responding to allegations of sexual assault by a growing number of victims. The former was misogynistic in nature, targeting women on political grounds, while the latter appears to have been exclusively targeting men.
Nonetheless, the statements issued by the two men are remarkably similar. In both cases, the perpetrator has unequivocally admitted committing the alleged actions, which at least allows the rest of us to discuss them as fact. However, he does not admit that these actions have constituted abuse. He blames the outcry from victims and the public for the situation he is in. The resignation itself is not an act of contrition, but a means of protecting himself and his organisation.
Another insidious similarity exists between the victimised groups. Women who allege verbal abuse are not believed, they are told they are responsible for engaging in conversations that they ‘aren’t tough enough’ to participate in. Men who allege sexual abuse are not believed, because society believes than men can only be perpetrators and never victims of these crimes. I don’t doubt that both Porter and Walsh were convinced that they could act with impunity, both because their victims were unlikely to speak up, and because they were even less likely to receive a fair hearing if they did so.
These statements admit conduct but not guilt, perpetration but not intent, assault but not abuse. The action is played down, but the reaction is played up. Walsh’s abuse is over-enthusiastic ‘political jousting’; Porter’s assaults are part of his ‘outrageous and flamboyant persona’. They make specific mention of what they call ‘intolerable’ public criticism and ‘vitriol’. The focus is on their own needs and circumstances. The effects on the victims remain unaddressed.
These two non-apologies have good company with the previous week’s statement by Michael Colgan, who has faced a stream of allegations of misogynistic and sexual misconduct during his tenure as the artistic director of Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Though Colgan, through an op-ed in the Sunday Independent, offered an apology for what he called ‘misjudged behaviour’, the purpose of the article was really to rebut his accusers and seize the narrative. He was not guilty of ‘sexual crimes’, he had simply failed to distinguish between friends and colleagues. Apparently, the allegations of sexual aggression and unwanted touching weren’t evidence of a moral failing, just a category error.
While discussing the debacle on Twitter, I was asked to consider what impact ‘good’ apologies might have when transgressions are considered and ultimately punished. As a starting point, let us ask: what do we want an apology to be?
I would suggest that an apology needs to be genuine, unconditional, and concerned with the needs of the victim rather than the needs of the perpetrator. It should not simply be an opportunity for the perpetrator to rebut criticism or offer ‘clarifications’ of their behaviour. An apology that is contrite, and that shows genuine awareness of what the perpetrator’s actions were and why they were wrong and harmful, offers the victim some assurance that the abuse will not be repeated.
Ireland is a small place. The worlds where these abuses took place––politics, comedy, theatre––are smaller still, certainly too small for abusers and victims to avoid each other and their mutual acquaintances indefinitely. Genuine apologies could go a long way to offering victims the necessary closure to continue with their work. The statements by Walsh, Porter, and Colgan have utterly failed to do that.