Earlier this afternoon, at Trinity College Dublin, I was awarded the Praeses Elit (2018).
The Praeses Elit was established by former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and is awarded by Trinity College Law Society to “those who have advanced discourse in their line of work, and who have been a source of inspiration for young people everywhere.”
What follows is the text of my speech.
It’s a profound pleasure to be here in Trinity College.
It’s an institution I have always felt an affinity with. I was here, in your chapel, to see two of my closest friends marry – Dominic Clarke and Ailis Ahern (she has a proper name, a Gaelic name but I’m not going to massacre it in front of you).
Dominic and Ailis met each other, and I met them, on an Erasmus year. And what a year it was: European constitutional law taught to us by a willowy and rather bookish young man called Koen Lenaerts, now President of the CJEU. And a stage in the Cabinet of the Belgian Advocate General, Walter van Gerven – perhaps the best lawyer I’ve ever known. It was the making of me as a lawyer.
And, as students we ate together and we drank together and we – let me call it “socialised” together. And we put aside the divisions of nations and we felt part of something bigger, something new. We felt optimism and we felt hope.
I went on to make amends for the crimes of my misspent youth – studying as an undergraduate law rather than a real humanity – with an MA and a dissertation on Samuel Beckett. If you ever find yourself struggling to articulate a thought in a tutorial, take comfort in this. Trinity’s very own Samuel Beckett won a Nobel Prize for performing the inadequacy of language. As an aside, I can’t read lines like the opening of Murphy: “The sun rose, having no alternative, on the nothing new” without also thinking how great he’d be on Twitter.
Being here, as Samuel Beckett was, makes me hugely proud.
So now to the work for which you have chosen to award me this splendid thing.
I am often asked why I do it.
And as I stare at the battered wreckage of my once lucrative professional practice, I ask myself that same question. And seeing in the mirror the sleep-deprived return of teenage acne – now splendidly framed by an entirely silver head… Well, that does not distract my mind from the question. And then I think of the only few snatched hours with my three daughters and a wife I love…
But I could no more stop the work that I am doing than I could grow wings.
Because I often talk about what I do – and only half in jest – as the result of a kind of pathology.
Its roots lie, I am sure, in a childhood where I was mistreated and I was powerless.
But now I am not.
I have the meretricious authority that comes from being a Queen’s Counsel. I have the platform of a stable family and the reach of approaching 80,000 twitter followers. I have the intermittent support of one of the best newspapers in the world. And I have the enormous advantage of the intellectual freedom that comes with self-employment.
Let me briefly transmogrify into one of those old men who come to the places where the young people are and tell them what to do. Have a good partner and nothing is impossible. Fight for a life where you are chiefly accountable only to your conscience. You may not be as rich – but you will always be happy and you will always be fulfilled.
So I ask myself, with all of those advantages, if I will not stand up to what is happening to my country? Then who will? Who are these people who are better placed than me?
Because I hate what is happening to the United Kingdom. I cannot understand its increasing indifference to the vulnerable. I am terrified by its contempt for democracy. I abhor the corruption of its institutions.
But alongside all of this, what is happening, what this unparalleled moment of democratic crisis also portends, is a kind of optimism.
Because we were complacent. Others, we thought, would sort it out. Scientists would fix global warming. Our social services would not tolerate the sexual trafficking of children. Healthcare would be there for those who needed it. Tax dodgers would be brought to book. Crime would not pay.
But now we know that that is not true. We know we must do it ourselves. And we have learned that lesson whilst there is time enough.
We must do it.
You must do it.
Meanwhile I reflect on that scene in Lord of the Rings with Gandalf on the Bridge at Khazad-dum. The fiery twin-horned Balrog approaches. And Gandalf – with his grey hair (and if you look really closely some prodigal teenage spots) – stands on the narrow bridge across a chasm.
And, although he knows the Balrog is too much for him, he plants his staff and his sword on the bridge and he says: “The dark flame will not avail you.”
“You shall not pass.”