Speaking at the MacGill Summer School, Glenties
Introduction: Measuring words and actions
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
I’m delighted to be here this morning, and I want to thank Joe Mulholland for organising another fascinating programme for this year’s summer school.
Of course, this year, MacGill is also remembering the late Seamus Heaney.
There is a line in Heaney’s translation of Beowulf which reads: “Anyone with gumption and a sharp mind will take the measure of two things: what’s said and what’s done.”
It’s a line that speaks to modern audiences because it appears to suggest that words must be matched by actions.
In fact, the character speaking is a coast-guard who, convinced by the sincerity of Beowulf’s words upon his arrival on Danish shores, allows passage.
Words could be as trustworthy as deeds in the culture in which Beowulf was set.
But we have reason for reading that line in the way that we do.
Because, as history has taught us, there can be a glaring difference between what’s said and what’s done – by rulers, by states, by institutions, by organisations – by those we are supposed to trust.
To see how ancient a truth this is, you need only to consider how the Bible depicts Jesus telling his faithful of the difference between the Pharisees’ teachings and their actions, “for they say, and do not do”.
So any person looking to measure the trustworthiness and credibility of the institutions that play a role in their lives will measure both utterance and deed.
But restoring trust in our institutions is not simply a matter of leaders matching words with actions.
There is a second problem, which is to do with the cynicism that now surrounds politics and public life – the notion that motives are always questionable, and that nothing is done simply in the public interest. (more…)