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Sunday 10 July 2011

Breaking away from the herd

An honorary doctorate at Queen's University Belfast was an unexpected privilege, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

I was thrilled to be given an honorary doctorate last week by Queen's University Belfast. The hospitality and the welcome were mighty. Here's a shortened version of my speech.

You're 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.

This is a most welcome but unexpected honour. I've spent much of my professional life annoying various establishments in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Sometimes unwittingly. Sometimes on purpose. 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'.

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 learnt 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. Scepticism is good: lazy conformism bad.

There were many years when I read and listened to experts on Northern Ireland and thought I understood what was going on. I didn't. Though I had jettisoned much of my Dublin Catholic baggage, 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 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.

There is much wisdom to be learnt 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. The few expressing contrary views met deep hostility.

Ireland has been particularly susceptible to the herd mentality. In my youth, hardly anyone in the Republic publicly questioned the effortless domination of society by the Roman Catholic Church. These days, the fashionable position is contempt for all clergy.

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 10 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.

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.

I'd like to finish with a quote from an American Jewish historian friend of mine, who saw terrible sights when fighting in the Second World War. "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."

Amen to that.

Read the full speech...

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards