An Irishman’s Diary about the pitfalls of state honours systems

Iffy honorifics

Even if Feargal Quinn’s Bill for a state honours system is accepted by all parties, he should surely think again about the award’s title. Yes, Gradam an Uachtaráin (“President’s mark of distinction”) sounds very nice in full. But do we really want a situation whereby those honoured, as Quinn is quoted saying, “will be able to use the letters ‘GU’ after their names?”

This will inevitably be shortened to “Goo” in popular speech – hardly a sound to encourage respect. And then there’s the problem of another famous acronym, of which “GU’”comprises 50 per cent.

It's more than 30 years since that was first awarded (jointly, to the main protagonists of the Malcolm MacArthur affair).  But it's still popular. So even today, some of Senator Quinn's honourees would risk their GU awards appearing "Grotesque" and "Unbelievable".

The problem is not the letter “G”, of course, which in English is also short for “good” and “great” and “guaranteed” (as in “Guaranteed Irish”), among other things.


No, the problem is the “U” which, even before it featured twice in “Gubu”, was the most controversial of English vowels.

Used as an initial, it almost always spells trouble, whether at the start of a phrase (UFO, U-boat, U-turn), or the end (IOU, FU).  In fact, speaking of marks of distinction, it was also once central to a debate about snobbery in Britain.

Just as "U" stands for "uachtar" here, meaning "cream" (and implying that "Uachtaráin" is the "creme de la creme"), so in England it stands for "upper class".

This became openly acknowledged in the 1950s after Nancy Mitford wrote a famous essay embellishing the findings of a professor who had noted "linguistic class indicators" in the spoken English of the time.

One of these was that the socially-aspiring middle classes (“Non-U”) had a weakness for using fancier words than the aristocracy (“U”).  If you lived in leafy suburbs somewhere, you probably sat on a “settee”, used “serviettes”, and had “dentures”. If you lived in a castle, you made do with a “sofa”, “napkins”, and “false teeth”.

The revelation caused much soul-searching in England for a time. Then, gradually, the middle and upper classes alike realised the importance of sounding as if they were born poor – leading to the democratic situation today, where even Eton-educated prime ministers must pretend to enjoy soccer, and risk embarrassing themselves occasionally by forgetting whether it’s Aston Villa or West Ham they support.

Mind you, the old deference is not dead yet, as a court case this week proved. It saw a man jailed for defrauding six top London hotels of £12,000.  His modus operandi included posing as a duke.  And it worked for a while because, just like Basil Fawlty 40 years ago, some hoteliers were reluctant to offend an aristocrat.

It was a bad week for British honours systems in general.  There was also an Aberdeen university's withdrawal of a degree from Donal Trump, who was simultaneously stripped of his role as honorary ambassador for Scottish business.

Now there’s a man who deserves to have “grotesque” and “unbelievable” after his name.

But acronyms aside, Trump’s Scottish demotion does highlight another problem with state honours – the tendency for recipients to disgrace them.

That's why if I were tabling amendments to Quinn's Bill, I would also make the awards subject to periodic review. The Michelin restaurant system, where you're liable to lose your stars annually, might be too harsh. But certainly you should have to apply for renewal every few years, as with a driving licence.

The only other safety mechanism is to defer honours until people are old, and less of a risk. But Trump, at 72, rather undermines that. And for self-imposed caution in these matters, I like the precedent set by George Bernard Shaw

Shaw was around 90 when the absence of a plaque of his birthplace was finally rectified by a Dublin dustman Patrick O’Reilly. O’Reilly’s proposed wording would have extolled a man who “gave his services to his country, unlimited, unstinted, and without price”. But this was too much for Shaw (who had turned down many honours, including a knighthood).

"Dear Pat," he wrote back affably. "Your inscription is a blazing lie. I left Dublin before I was twenty and I have devoted the remainder of my life to Labour and International Socialism and for all you know I may be hanged yet".

His revised wording, still on the plaque on Synge Street today, describes him merely as “author of many plays”.