MODESTY, BRILLIANCE AND ETHICS



I'm going to talk briefly today about modesty, brilliance and ethics – and some modest, brilliant and ethical people I have known and admired. I call these people MBEs. Those of you who have spent time in Britain – I largely grew up there – will know that the MBE award (Member of the British Empire) is the lowest rank in the Queen's awards given to people for outstanding contributions to society, and therefore the awards most often given to ordinary, modest people.
          I will start with modesty. The Cambridge English dictionary defines modesty as: “the quality of not talking about or not trying to make people notice your abilities and achievements.” Maybe I prize modesty too much. I know that I intensely dislike people who are loud and show-offy. To take a tiny example, those who know me well known that I am a longstanding Irish soccer supporter. I'm afraid soccer throws up its share of such people: my wife Doireann will testify that three of my least favourite people in Irish public life are the journalist and soccer pundit Eamon Dunphy, the former star player Roy Keane and the former chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland John Delaney.
          Because when I look around for role models I find they are often modest people, impressive and valiant achievers who are happy to hide their own light under a bushel in favour of working quietly for the common good. Who, for example, is the most impressive political leader in Europe today? I imagine few would disagree if I nominated the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose courageous moral leadership in accepting 1.2 million refugees from the Syrian war, won her admirers everywhere (and bitter opposition from the far right in Germany). And what is the secret of her success with the German electorate? It's that she comes across as a completely ordinary German housewife, a very modest woman but one with an indomitable ethical code.
          One of the most outstanding examples from recent British history was Clement Attlee, British prime minister from 1945-1951. Winston Churchill is reputed to have said once: “Attlee is a modest man who has a great deal to be modest about.” Yet the low-key Labour leader has a just claim to have been the greatest reforming prime minister of the 20th century: the man whose government brought in that country’s Welfare State. Inspired by the great economist John Maynard Keynes, and with the aim of maintaining full employment in a near-bankrupt Britain after the Second World War, Attlee’s government undertook the nationalisation of public utilities and major industries, and implemented wide-ranging social reforms, including the foundation of the National Health Service. It greatly increased subsidies for council house building; provided free secondary education for all; reformed industrial working practices and trade union legislation; and created the National Parks. I was born into that society in Northern Ireland in 1948, and my family were lifelong Labour voters as a result.
          One anecdote. When the notoriously laconic Attlee went to see King George VI at Buckingham Palace to be appointed Prime Minister after the Labour Party had surprisingly won the 1945 election, Attlee and the famously tongue-tied King (you may remember him from the film ‘The King’s Speech’) stood in complete silence for quite some time; Attlee finally volunteered the remark, “I've won the election”. The King replied “I know. I heard it on the Six O’Clock News”.
          Of course it helps greatly if modesty is linked with brilliance, and Attlee, with his depth of knowledge of government, his quiet idealism and huge pragmatism, was brilliant in his own unassuming way.
          During my years in Northern Ireland, I was very privileged to have met and worked with some brilliant people. Because his recent death is still in our minds, I will start with John Hume, who although maybe not personally modest, was never a man who sought the limelight for its own sake – he far preferred to work quietly behind the scenes to influence powerful policy-makers in Dublin, London, Washington and Brussels. Hume was a man who believed that Irish unity would only come after the extremely difficult business of working over many years to unite the people of Ireland, rather than its territory. “The real division of Ireland is not a line on a map but is in the minds and hearts of its people”, he used to say.
          As well as a world-class influencer, this son of an unemployed man from Derry was brilliant at relating to ordinary people of all shapes and sizes and political opinions. I have a vivid memory of one particular meeting with him. When I was running the independent Opsahl Commission into ways forward for Northern Ireland in 1992, I asked Hume if I could meet him. He was flying back into Aldergrove airport, west of Belfast, and driving home to Derry and suggested, to my surprise, meeting in the Chimney Corner Inn on the road to Antrim in a staunchly unionist area. When I arrived there, he was already inside, glad-handing every Billy and Jacky in the bar. I was amazed - talk about loving your enemies!
          I will mention two more modest and brilliant people involved in Northern Ireland peacemaking whom many people here will probably not have heard of. The first was Sir George Quigley, who died in 2013. Quigley – who is almost totally unknown south of the border - was a kind of Northern Ireland renaissance man: the head of two government departments, a top business leader, an innovative cross-border co-operator and the man who oversaw the disarming of loyalist paramilitary groups. He was a visionary thinker who foresaw a peaceful Ireland built on confederal lines and a model of kindness, courtesy and respect for others. He had what many would consider a perfect death. A devout Presbyterian, seven years ago, aged 83, he was leading the service from the pulpit of his North Down church, when he was struck by a massive heart attack and died on the spot.
          Then there is Noel Dorr. A former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Irish ambassador to London, Dorr was one of the architects of the 1986 Anglo-Irish Agreement, the first major step in the process that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Dorr used to infuriate the mandarins of the British Cabinet Office and Foreign Office with his Mayo accent, his self-effacing demeanor but his rapier-like insights during difficult British-Irish negotiations. When I was helping Seamus Mallon (see A TRIBUTE TO SEAMUS MALLON Oscailt May 2020) to write his memoir a couple of years ago, we became particularly blocked on how some significant element of unionism might one day be persuaded to contemplate Irish unity. In conversation with Noel Dorr, he came up with the importance of generosity by the nationalist people of Ireland towards the unionists. There is a paragraph from the book which is lifted straight from Dorr: “The one thing that might now bring the unhappy centuries-old history of disaffection, division and violence to an end at last is for Irish nationalism in both jurisdictions to consciously demonstrate a measure of generosity that would give real meaning to the opening sentence of the new Article Three written into the Constitution after the Good Friday Agreement: It is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions.”
          And then there’s ethics. I haven’t left enough time to talk about ethics. One could give a thousand sermons about ethics alone. All I would say is that I admire people who try to live by a code of high ethical behaviour (a code I have several times in my life fallen very far short of). I would sum this up in three simple but powerful statements, constituting an view of the world which I believe is or was shared by Angela Merkel, Clement Attlee, John Hume, George Quigley, Noel Dorr and countless other exemplary human leaders. The first is the so-called Golden Rule: the ancient wisdom from Confucian times in the 6th century BC which is at the core of all the world’s great religions and moral systems: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (or in Christian terms “Love your neighbour as yourself.”)
          The second is the lovely quotation from the 19th century Franco-American Quaker missionary: Stephen Grellet: “I shall pass through this life but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it. For I shall never pass this way again.”
          Thirdly, here is the Dalai Lama on altruism and kindness as the basis of an ethical life: “The sole source of peace within you, in the family, the country and the world, is altruism – love and compassion. At the core of our existence as human beings is the desire to lead purposeful, meaningful lives. Our purpose is to develop a warm heart. We find meaning in our lives by being a friend to everyone. Altruism is the cure because it is the authentic way to conduct your life.”
          And on kindness: “Foolish people are always thinking only of themselves, and the result is always negative. Wise people think of others, helping them as much as they can, and the result is happiness. Love and compassion are beneficial, both for you and others. Through kindness toward others, your mind and heart will open to peace.”



Andy Pollak                            23rdAugust 2020
Dublin Unitarian Church




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