Right Rev Paul Colton - Law Degrees - September 26th 2000

University College, Cork
Speech by the Right Reverend Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork
Tuesday 26th September 2000


Nineteen years ago I myself was sitting among you on this significant day of achievement. Your hard work has come to fruition and now the journey really begins.

That day, I never, in my wildest dreams - in fact if I had dreamt it, I would have discounted it as either weird or indeed a nightmare - imagined that I would be standing at such an event as this in UCC, yet alone as Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross. That I have been accorded this opportunity and honour by the President is extremely humbling and I am very grateful to him. As I return to UCC for my first formal university occasion I can say that within the context of the Church of Ireland and its long history, I have been told that I am the first graduate of the National University to be elected a Bishop of our Church, and that I treasure too. Increasingly Church of Ireland clergy now graduate first from the NUI.

JB Leslie

A previous most notable Church of Ireland priest and lifetime rector of Castlebellingham, Canon JB Leslie, graduated in 1888 with a BA in Civil and Constitutional History, Political Economy and general Jurisprudence from what was then the Queen's College, Cork. A year later he got his MA. His lifetime work on, indeed obsession with, the biographical succession lists of Irish clergy lives on today.

1981: A world away

The world of my 1981 conferring was a very different one. More interestingly, many of the roles and jobs people are doing now had not even been conceived of then. Exponentially that diversification has increased since. It was a more predictable world when most went on to work for reputable and established names on the South Mall or Washington Street, or similar streets in other cities. Moreover, many of the current disciplines and sectors of practice within the law were unheard of, or at least only in their pangs of birth.

Nonetheless and even now many of my year of fellow BCL graduates have harnessed a new variety of opportunities previously unheard of. It's equally daunting to think that when the turn of my six-year-old twin sons comes the jobs they will do have not yet been conceived within the human mind.

All of this is symptomatic of the cliché we use when we talk about "rapid change". And what makes this syndrome all the more complex is that every area of human living, co-existence, and every field of knowledge and application have been under-going a similar revolution.

A Monumental Transition in Ireland

It's in vogue to say that our society is in the throes of a monumental transition: the movement from modernity to post-modernity. However, in many ways, it has even gone beyond that:

  • Every "present order", that is to say, all the major institutions of modern society are held in some degree of suspicion, not without reason.
  • All forms of authority are questioned. Your profession and most certainly mine are held in less regard, again not without justification.
  • Expectations of leaders are more demanding than ever before.
  • The culture of voluntary work is menaced by a lack of volunteers.
  • In the world of philosophy and belief all is difference, and there is an inherent suspicion of the suggestion that any one over-arching narrative and story gives meaning to it all.
  • There is a sense too that life on earth is fragile and that survival depends on a new spirit of co-operation rather than conquest.
  • New tensions have emerged in our society, not least for example, as the influx of refugees to our country has brought new questions for government and the community.
  • Our sudden success has left many caught in a stressful web where, for example, the weather is less talked about than the traffic.

It's a world of change portrayed by the President's symbolic digital signature on 10th July last to the E-Commerce Act, 2000.

Having emerged from this same UCC legal stable, the world of people and belief, faith and pilgrimage is my daily currency now. While most substantive law and information has long left me, years here have irrevocably changed me. It affects my method and my thought processes as, from the perspective of someone whose daily business involves encounter with many aspects of human society, I watch that society unfolding into new and uncertain beginnings.

A world of change in the legal field: These changing realities will be part of your world too:

  • Issues of harmonisation and the expanding European landscape in general.
  • Fundamental social rights and the consequences for all of us of the forthcoming legislation incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • The changing face of the family and of social relationships.
  • The dilemmas and opportunities presented by Information Technology. How do old laws apply to new types of commerce and the way lawyers work?
  • As new standards of public accountability are purveyed in society tribunals have become an established culture, forum and mechanism.
  • The Equal Status Act, 2000 will underline mores essential to the development of our society but which challenge also those perspectives and myths with which many have hitherto had inculcated in them.
  • In the world of Education there's a new ground-breaking corpus of law for the first time.
  • The review of the Constitution.
  • Issues of accountability, openness and fairness in the Irish prison system
  • With the expansion of the Celtic economy, quite simply everyone, including lawyers, is busier.
  • Only last Friday here in UCC was held your conference on Company Law Reform in Ireland.
  • The ever unfolding encounters between the law on the one hand and religion and ethics on the other, especially in the arena of medical creativity and genetic engineering.

A residual sectarianism in Irish Society

Even before we address the unfolding and terrifying issue of racism in our society there is the outstanding matter of sectarianism. We tend here naively to look northwards for the epitome of sectarianism. However, as our own culture becomes more pluralistic we need to address something very basic in our own midst: a residual but nonetheless potent sectarianism which still permeates aspects of Irish society. Each of us personally, and in every institution, needs to ask: what is it in my institution, my profession, that is potentially or indeed actually, sectarian in character?

The Judaeo-Christian Tradition

For followers of the Judaeo-Christian tradition the law and its language is juxtaposed and entwined with two other ideas: in the Hebrew Scriptures it's the Law and the Prophets; in New Testament writings it's Law and Grace. This entanglement is both interesting and challenging.

The Law, although in the Scriptural context, given by God, is nonetheless a corpus of legal material, written statutes and judgments. It exists in paradoxical tension, however, with the tradition of prophecy and the new dispensation of Christ.

Prophecy, far from foretelling the future, is a tradition of social critique. Every healthy society needs its critics and prophets perform this function. Grace is an undeserved free favour. There is no obligation to give it, but it predicates kindness and graciousness in general, perhaps even mercy and compassion.

The challenge of an inter-disciplinary approach: What I am trying to affirm and to challenge you with today is this; that in the conundrum of rapidly changing dynamics and pressures of modern society no profession, no sphere of knowledge, no philosophy, and no institution can maintain a ghettoised remoteness from an interdisciplinary approach nor can it shun the culture of partnership. In addition, within disciplines, we see, more and more, the focus on bridging the gap between theory and practice.


BCL graduates of 2000! You are setting off into a world of new opportunities. Be open to them and to the diversification that is inevitably at your disposal. Before long you will be working in areas and doing jobs that had never been heard of when I was here 19 years ago. As you set off I want to leave you with some self-evident but fundamental, principles which are all too easily in danger of being forgotten:

  • What matters most is people. Everything I have highlighted has a knock on consequence for human beings. Keep your approach, therefore, people and community centred.
  • People are just that: people! High standards are one thing; perfection is another. One of the Gnostic syndromes of our time is that we fruitlessly look for perfection in others - a perfection that will never be ours.
  • Keep success in perspective. Think about it, most people in life never win a prize. Are they failures? Of course, not. Each person is needed. Community life relies on our faithful partnership with one another. It depends on each of us chipping in what we have and what we can do so that the whole thing works rather than breaks down altogether.

So, keep in mind the law.

But remember too the tradition, perhaps not your own, exemplified by prophecy and grace.

The most famous courtroom scene in the Bible where the people plead their case before the mountains and the hills and all nature, ends with these words: "ŠDo justice, love kindness and mercy, and walk humbly with your God" Micah 6.8

Do your work with compassion for people and for society, and give when you don't have to give. Were it not for the fact that it brings back shadowy (even nightmarish) memories, I might even be tempted in relation to this levelling of all things to call it - Equity!

University College Cork

Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh

College Road, Cork T12 K8AF