Ben Macintyre questions the value of apologies for the distant past - such as for the Irish potato famine or the slave trade. Much of what he says is interesting, and his suggestion that there may be other impulses behind such apologies than genuine contrition is to the point. But in making the argument, Macintyre appears to claim that an apology isn't relevant unless the person making it bears some blame as an individual for the wrong done. He writes, for example:
[A]n apology implies acceptance of blame, an acknowledgment of wrongdoing and guilt... an apology without some sense of responsibility, for events that occurred far beyond living memory, is purely symbolic, an empty gesture.And:
An apology is only meaningful if the breast being beaten bears some responsibility within it.This can't be right. Not only individuals but also collectivities can bear responsibility for wrongs. And since collectivities - firms, universities, political parties, nations - are represented by persons, and it is only persons who can speak for them, it can happen that an individual who wasn't a member of the collectivity in question at the time the putative wrong was committed can - perfectly meaningfully and sincerely - be the one to apologize for it.
By the same reasoning, an apology can properly be made even if none of the present members of the collectivity apologizing were members at the time of the act or policy for which the apology is being made. Institutions and communities have a life of their own, beyond the individual memberships, careers, lives, etc, of those who belong to them. They are as capable of apology as of other acts (decisions, declarations, endorsements, making payments, forming partnerships and alliances, and so forth) that individuals perform.
This doesn't mean that all apologies for the distant past are prudent or useful, only that they are possible and meaningful.