Shades of the Past

In 1654, John Selden noted that religious preachers would often suggest that their congregation should ‘do as I say, not as I do’.  As they preached about sacrifice, love and honesty, many of them were at the same time busy filling their pockets, grasping for power and serving their own personal interests. Is it any wonder that ordinary people turned away from the established religions (this was, after all, just after the time of the Reformation)? How could people trust those in power when they could see that those people judged others by one set of standards, but appeared to believe that the same standards did not apply to them?

Like so many people around Ireland, I’ve watched recent events around the Oireachtas Golf Society outing in Clifden, with a sad sense of déja vu. I thought that following the financial crisis we were reaching a stage when those in leadership positions were beginning to understand that they are a part of our community and not above it. I thought that days typified by things like the Galway Races tent were part of history. Sadly, while I am optimistic enough to have a growing faith in some of our senior politicians, it seems that there are still some in positions of power who just don’t get the fact that they are servants not masters.

And just in case anyone thinks I am judging one group more harshly than another, I would note that the exact same thoughts occurred to me as I watched politicians from other parties attending large funerals of political allies, while ordinary people couldn’t even attend the burial of close friends or family members.

Perhaps these people believe at some deep level that while the rules are important in general, they don’t really apply to them specifically. Perhaps they think that their power and influence moves them above the rest of society: they know how things work; they have important things to do; and they know that they aren’t the kinds of people who have to comply with all of the bothersome small regulations intended for everyone else. To paraphrase Edward Wigglesworth from as far back as 1885, there are some people who judge themselves based on whether they believe they are doing something wrong, but judge others based on what they actually do. It certainly does appear that there are still too many within positions of power in Ireland who fit that description.

I am not alone in feeling let down by recent behaviour. When people hear us saying one thing but then see us doing the opposite, what is the likely human reaction? It is to feel let down at best; and manipulated at worst. Over the last 6 months we have been told of the need for every person in Ireland to shoulder their responsibility and make the sacrifices needed to help get us through this COVID period. I have been willing to do this, as has my family. Relatives, friends and colleagues have lost jobs, lost money and in some cases lost their own family members. Through the early months of the pandemic I believed that we were truly all in this together regardless of who we were and what we did, and I was willing to do what was asked of me. There was a level of trust that was built up because I saw that the same rules applied to all. Unfortunately, those individuals involved in recent activities, as well as earlier breaches, have broken that trust.

Unless we learn as individuals and as a country that it is our actions not our words that matter, we will never build a society based on trust. Words might inspire me, but it is only behaviour that will win my trust.

John Selden also said that ‘Humility is a virtue all preach, none practice’. I, however, am not that cynical. I believe that there can be real good in people – even in people of power. I have seen over the last few months political leaders of real character and integrity in this great little country. But this needs to become the rule rather than the exception. Reputations are built on the integrity with which we live the values that we espouse. Our political and other leaders need to be clear about what it is that they stand for and value. And then they need to behave as if that means something to them.


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