Redress for past harms? Official apologies in Northern Ireland

Patricia Lundy, Bill Rolston

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


This article critically examines the nature, role and function of official apologies with respect to conflict-related deaths in Northern Ireland. It draws on empirical research of investigations carried out by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) in state involvement cases and in particular a sample of unpublished reports that prompted official apologies. These reports also contain individual ‘perpetrator’ apologies or expressions of regret. Apologies are promoted as an important transitional justice tool, and the topic has generated considerable literature. However, while that literature has touched upon the possible adverse effects of apologies, there has been less focus on examining the empirical evidence of situations where apologies have turned out to have negative effects. This article addresses aspects of this research gap through the lens of three key transitional justice themes: redress, reparation and victims’ agency. Pivotal questions are raised about the value of apology to the victim on the one hand and the state on the other. The conceding or withholding of official apologies is examined: who qualifies and why, and whether certain victims are deemed ‘undeserving’ of an apology. The article concludes by suggesting that a pattern of official apologies without accountability and acceptance of responsibility is emerging in Northern Ireland; that official apologies can function as a way to shield state institutions, deflect further scrutiny, deny culpability, avoid effective redress and placate and silence victims. In this context historical injustice may be intensified rather than rectified, causing more harm than good, at best glossing over past wrongs and at worst facilitating impunity and re-traumatising victims.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)104-122
Number of pages19
JournalThe International Journal of Human Rights
Issue number1
Early online date13 Jun 2015
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 2 Jan 2016


  • Redress
  • Official apologies
  • Historical Enquiries Team
  • Northern Ireland


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