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Queen's University Belfast
July 2011

Queen’s University: address to the graduands

Good afternoon, Vice-chancellor, Professor Larrissey, distinguished academics, parents, families and friends. To the graduands, warm congratulations on your achievements and on sticking with your studies down what must have been a long and grinding road. 

You are lucky to have been born in a democracy at a time of extraordinary social freedom. The women among you can break glass ceilings: the gays can be proud. You can all express your opinions loudly and fiercely. These are rare privileges in a world where few countries value free speech. One of the curses of modern society is the culture of entitlement. Sometimes, we should take time to reflect on how extraordinarily lucky we are.  

This is a most welcome but unexpected honour for me. I’ve spent much of my professional life annoying various establishments in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Sometimes unwittingly. Sometimes on purpose. As an historian, I mightily upset some nationalists a long time ago by writing an honest biography of Patrick Pearse. I was labelled a revisionist, a label that was new to me, but which I came to wear with pride. There was plenty of abuse; fortunately, it thickened my skin.  

As a journalist I’ve been legally threatened and sometimes even sued by an odd cast of characters that includes republicans, a DUP MP and a Roman Catholic priest. And over the years I’ve received an entertaining mix of insults that have included ‘fenian’, ‘neo-unionist’, ‘lick-spittle to the British government’ and ‘Islamophobe’.   I’m sure they’re all absolutely correct, even when they contradict each other.  One of my father’s mantras was that you must learn to laugh at yourself, and I try to do that. But of course I enjoy laughing at my critics much more.

Then there are my crime novels, which I produce for light relief and to get annoyances out of my system. I can sit in some committee listening to a thundering bore or a pompous bully and think: ‘I’ll get you in the next novel.’  I also enjoy lampooning the great and the good. As a crime writer, I’ve made fun of a range of British institutions that include the Church of England, the House of Lords and the civil service. I’ve even satirised that holy-of-holies, the peace process: the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs was not amused. But as I stand here in this fine hall, after this moving ceremony, wearing this splendid gown, it is with some embarrassment that I tell you that above all – and relentlessly - I’ve mocked academics and academia. 

So it says much for the generosity of Queen’s academics that they have chosen to give me this singular honour. And that Professor Larrissey should have been so gracious.  This doctorate means a great deal to me, not least because it is a symbol of how important Northern Ireland is in my life.  I’ve made many friends - and enemies - here and I’ve learned many lessons. Not least that you should always question received wisdom. And that you should take none of your opinions on trust. Not from your parents. Not from your teachers. Not from your friends. Not from your clergy. Not from your politicians. Not from your colleagues. And above all, not from your tribe and not from your ancestral voices. 

Some of your ancestors may have been wise. Some may have been foolish. None of them has the right to trammel your intellectual freedom. No accident of birth should keep you from exploring new ideas and other ways of thinking. Scepticism is good: lazy conformism bad.   Your opinions aren’t worth listening to if they’re not your own. Knee-jerk anti-American or anti-Israeli sentiments are fashionable: that doesn’t make them right. Keep an open mind, read people you disagree with and try to see the opposite point of view.    

There were many years when I read learned commentators on Northern Ireland and listened to mesmerising speakers and thought I understood what was going on here. I didn’t. I had managed to jettison a great deal of my Dublin Catholic baggage, but I still didn’t understand the thought-processes of either Northern Irish tribe. Then I stopped swallowing other people’s opinions and spent a lot of time over here standing in mud and rain, watching orange and green parades, dodging stones at riots, listening to angry and fearful voices and hearing terrible stories from ordinary people from every background whose lives had been devastated by violence. I saw undreamed of complexities, buried some prejudices and set out to try to confront lies, from wherever they came. 

In the 1930s, many European intellectuals decided that communism was their religion and were made fools of by the Soviet Union. To those of you who haven’t already discovered this, I’m sorry to have to tell you that clever people can be extraordinarily silly. The man and woman in the street often have a much greater grasp of reality than do those who order them about, lecture them and tell them what they’re supposed to believe. The French writer André Gide was one of the few intellectuals who went to the Soviet Union - a land of famine and terror - and wasn’t taken in by the lies and the airbrushed tours by official guides. ‘Believe those who are seeking the truth,’ Gide said. ‘Doubt those who find it.’ 

We should apply that to ourselves as well. If we think we know it all, we probably know nothing. And if we think someone else knows everything, we are in deep trouble. There is much wisdom to be learned from others, but we must always think for ourselves. Otherwise we adopt the herd mentality, with all the terrible consequences that follow. 

In recent years, it was the herd mentality that destroyed the economy of the Republic of Ireland. Politicians, bankers, regulators and property developers were on a merry-go-round, assuring each other that this time, boom would not be followed by bust. Greed was good. It wasn’t just that no one wanted to listen to any contrary views: they met with deep hostility. Famously, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s response to the few economists who predicted the property market would crash was to say:  ‘Sitting on the sidelines, cribbing and moaning is a lost opportunity. I don't know how people who engage in that don't commit suicide.’ 

The herd mentality is something to which people as well as animals are all too prone, but Ireland has been particularly susceptible to it. When I was growing up, hardly anyone in the Republic had the courage to question the effortless domination of society by the Roman Catholic Church.   Politicians, lawyers and the cream of society knew that children were being beaten and tormented in industrial schools and many knew that some priests should not be let near children, but no one was prepared to make a fuss. If anyone showed signs of blowing a whistle, it was taken away from them. 

These days, the herd has moved on and is galloping madly in the other direction. The fashionable position in the south is contempt for all clergy. Good priests and nuns are treated like lepers: few have the courage to wear clerical clothes in public. The truth is that the Irish Roman Catholic default position is to distrust and make enemies of dissenters, and that goes for the dinner tables of leafy Dublin 4 as it does for republican strongholds in West Belfast. 

It was because of that history that I became fond of Presbyterians, who can produce ten opinions at a table of six, although I have often felt very frustrated at how self-harming can be their contrarianism.  However, not even their best friends could say that as a tribe, Ulster Protestants in general have been much more free of the herd mentality than have been their Roman Catholic neighbours. Many Catholics vote for murderers: many Protestants vote for bigots. And the majority have always turned on those they have seen to be traitors, turn-coats, Lundys.  

Northern Ireland has experienced much pain at the hands of sectarian tribalists. And although there is now a kind of a peace, we all know from the 20 feet walls and the riots that sectarianism is alive and well and still fuelling hatred. I would like to see the Executive giving priority to tackling the self-imposed apartheid in working-class communities. I fear it won’t, because it suits tribal chieftains to keep their subjects fearful and resentful and under their thumbs.

Tribalism is killing, maiming and bereaving millions every year in this imperfect world. Our small island has been cursed by it. I just hope your generation - with its internationalist outlook, its openness to other races and other ways of living – will abandon tribalism and think for yourselves. You can love and respect your heritage without being blinded by it. We’re in Queen’s, so it seems appropriate to quote from the speech Queen Elizabeth gave in Dublin when she spoke of the importance ‘of being able to bow to the past but not be bound by it.’

  I’d like to finish with two more quotes, for sometimes the dead can help us free ourselves from intellectual chains. An American Jewish friend of mine, who saw terrible sights when fighting in the Second World War, used to teach and ruminate on history. ‘Remember, Kiddo,’ he said to his grandson, ‘history isn’t linear, it’s cyclical. And the two worst things in the world are greed and tribalism.’

The Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Misosz, who defected from communist Poland to the west and wrote a seminal book on how intellectuals behave under repressive regimes, concluded bleakly. ‘All of us yearn for the highest wisdom,’ he said, ‘but we have to rely on ourselves in the end.’ 

Thank you for listening. Good luck with your lives.

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Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards