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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: May 30, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

    Land of Grattan, O’Connell and Tongue-Tied TDs

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    This article appeared in the Opinion pages of the print edition of last Saturday’s Irish Times

    MANY OF us have had the experience of those sporting occasions where a few players are tossing a ball around at a practice session when somebody’s cousin arrives from out of town and turns in a stellar performance that leaves everyone gasping with admiration.

    So it was with US president Barack Obama, who is, of course, somebody’s cousin from Moneygall. Whatever about some of his policies and decisions, this man is a class act: eloquent, intelligent and self-confident.

    Speaking at College Green in Dublin, he had the crowd and virtually the entire nation in the palm of his hand. Why can’t we turn out politicians like Barack Obama? This is the island of saints and scholars, after all; the land of WB Yeats, James Joyce, JM Synge and, more recently, Edna O’Brien, Colm Tóibín and Emma Donoghue.

    We have had political orators such as Henry Grattan (people swear his College Green statue nodded in approval as the president spoke), Daniel O’Connell, James Dillon, John M Kelly and Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. In the world of television and radio, we have brought forth Gay Byrne (who did a fine job at the concert for Queen Elizabeth), Terry Wogan, Miriam O’Callaghan and the late Gerry Ryan. So how come, with a small number of exceptions, our political representatives are such duff public speakers?

    Few members of our current political class could deliver an oration or even off-the-cuff witticism with anything like the grace and style of our distinguished visitor from the White House.

    These exceptions shine out like good deeds in a naughty world. The Taoiseach himself gave an excellent speech when elected to his new position by the Dáil and he didn’t borrow anything that day, apart from George Bernard Shaw’s phrase celebrating the life of Michael Collins: “Hang out your brightest colours.”

    The Taoiseach’s proposer on the day, Wicklow TD Simon Harris, who also quoted Shaw’s phrase, showed there is hope for the new generation. Sadly, Deputy Harris, the youngest member of the current Dáil, has not had much opportunity to display his talents since: they should have given him a post with responsibility for youth employment, as it would give hope to our school-leavers and graduates to have someone who could speak their language.

    There are other politicians who have given a good account of themselves, notably Pat Rabbitte, Brian Lenihan, Pearse Doherty, Brian Hayes, Joan Burton, Alan Shatter, Eoghan Harris and Luke “Ming” Flanagan.

    The list could go on, but not for very long. The reasons people are chosen for political office do not appear to include fluency and a passion to communicate.

    The dynastic factor, whereby TDs attain office on the basis of a family connection, doesn’t help either.

    The TD’s role as a constituency nurse is another factor: I recall a classic moment covering a political hopeful on the canvass who was told on the doorstep that, “You need to run messages for the old people if you want to get in.”

    Meanwhile, the Seanad is sometimes trumpeted as a repository of eloquence in our political system and, this week, the Upper House had an opportunity to showcase its oratorical talent. However, the result was, like the parson’s egg, good only in parts.

    As the longest-serving member, David Norris was in charge of the election of Cathaoirleach, and his address did the place proud. Invoking the spirits of former senatorial greats such as Yeats and Oliver St John Gogarty, he recalled how Roman armies marched into battle under banners proclaiming their loyalty to “the senate and the people”.

    It was vintage stuff: no doubt his supporters in the race for the Áras would describe it as positively presidential. But before too long, less eloquent Senators were getting their spoke in with rambling, repetitious disquisitions, replete with narrow local references and folksy provincialism. They stopped just short of thanking the parish priest for the use of the hall.

    Norris had shown the Seanad at its best but some of the other members let him down and weakened the case for retention of the Upper House. Mind you, there is still an opportunity for the Taoiseach’s nominees to show they are parliamentarians and not celebrity luvvies.

    When the referendum comes, the anti-abolitionists will need to keep all windbags in the background with zips placed firmly over their mouths. If the people are expected to fund a talking-shop, they must feel they are getting Brown Thomas or the Kilkenny Design Centre and not a huckster outlet on some windswept corner with poorly read scripts fluttering in the breeze.

    There is a healthy degree of suspicion among the electorate towards smooth-talking politicians who are long on palaver and short on delivery. Yet the country needs a lift and we are not going to overcome our economic difficulties unless we are in good heart.

    Napoleon, who knew a thing or two about winning and losing battles, said the morale of an army was three times more important than its physical strength and we need a good half-time pep-talk or two if we are to get through the current crisis.

    That’s not to say that we can blather our way to recovery, but it would be helpful if we had a few political leaders who came out now and again to tell us, like our distant cousin Barack “O’Bama”, that (wait for it): “Yes we can – Is féidir linn.”

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      Yeah that’s exactly what we need – a fine speech. All our problems will be sorted then. Isn’t it slightly pathetic how people almost fainted as the Queen said 5 words in Irish – do people genuinely think she doesn’t do the same on every visit she makes where English is not the only language? Also – how weird is it that we focus on the O’Bama thing when that’s his father’s name and it’s his mother’s side who were Irish – there is no link with Ireland on the Obama family side. Bizarre.

      As far as I’m aware we don’t have recordings of Grattan or Tone or Emmet or even Parnell so we don’t actually know what they sounded like – the mythmakers have done their job well and in the days before microphones, it seems likely no one beyond the first few rows could have heard them anyway and their reports to others would have been biased – they were hardly going to say their hero was a dullard? Wouldn’t the peasants at these monster meetings all have been drunk, fighting and thieving and not listening to a word spoken?

      At this stage in the processes of ‘grieving’ the loss of economic growth we’re still in the denial stage about our role in causing the mess we are in and while the ‘ordinary’ folk have most certainly done their bit to put things right the establishment still haven’t even begun to face the cutbacks they need to make.

      McAleese has been President for 14 years, Norris has been in the Senate for 90 years (or does it just seem that way?) – what has McAleese been doing to fix Ireland for the last 14 years – how many times has she ever used her powers to challenge the government on the bank guarantee or the pension raid, where is her example on cutting her salary, her expenses and her pension – even with the extremely modest gesture she has made it goes nowhere near far enough and now her husband is on the state payroll? Why is he any more special to be picked out of all the people who day in day out do their bit for peace in the north. What exactly did he do and who did he meet – what is all this’ work’ he did for the peace process and at whose behest did he do it and who paid for his trips here there and everywhere while he was doing it?

      Don’t get me started on the pensions and expenses being paid to those who will now leave the Senate and on the expenses claimed by new TDs, not a single receipt between them. Maybe the official who designed the system used to work for FIFA.

      A fine speech is no substitute for honesty, transparency and accountability and tangible,actual reform and despite all the fine words pre-election, there’s is a little sign of real and deep reform yet – a bit of tinkering but it never goes deep enough – let’s attack the lower-paid as wage costs are 25% higher in ROI than NI but the thought process to reach that conclusion never seems to link it back to why wages need to be higher here and to tackle the higher costs due to the government – rates, utilities, various other taxes and why not a salary limit or a legally binding committment that a firm which applies for its JLC to lapse to create two full time jobs or it will lose the JLC waiver – Richard Bruton is intelligent enough to know all this but it seems he chose to ignore it – perhaps he’s forgotten that his constituency isn’t only leafy Clontarf and Artane and that he needs to go to East Wall and Donnycarney more often to get in touch with reality.

      Enda Kenny did far better than Brian Cowen would have and that’s great but it doesn’t save one single job, it hasn’t stopped one repossession or brought one new investment to Ireland – US business people do not make business decisions because of a nice visit – they expect nothing less for their President.

      So, while it’s great that people feel some bounce – let’s hope it does turn into something tangiable because there’s a limit to how long the last government can be blamed and on when people will expect results and there’s a finite amount of money on hand – we need to be on our feet when it runs out. Are we there yet?

    • Received a handwritten letter, signed “Old Timer, Co Westmeath” which read: “I was a teacher when young and the children I taught in the 1960s were far better educated than the children of today. [Nowadays] they have degrees to burn but do not read, play an instrument, do not honour the expensive education they have received. What is wrong?”

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      It’s not just the students who are not what they used to be. Today’s teachers leave a lot to be desired when compared to the calibre of those of yesteryear. Am I one of the few 30 somethings who still sends handwritten letters for personal things when usually people send an e-mail or text.

      It’s also a reflection of poor parenting too where children are never challenged to thrive to be the best they can as the example set for a child (good or bad) is generally repeated by that child in adulthood?

      On the other hand my wise grandparents used to point out it’s only ever people who never had to live when the past was the present who hark back to the ‘good old days’.

    • kellyg123 says:

      eloquent, intelligent and self-confident..

      you do not need to be any of these things to be a policitian in ireland and that’s the reason there is none.

      there is no such thing as debate in schools or even between politicans when they are on tv or radio – it becomes a shouting match.
      what we need is proper debate – in schools, on tv, on radio – where each speaker gets a turn followed by a rebuttal. followed by a counter point, etc etc… chaired properly.

      No more shouting each other down and not making any sense, just being the loudest repeating the sound bite for tomorrow’s newspaper quote.

      If eloquence and intelligence was important to get elected, then maybe we might get better TD’s

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      Just finished speaking in the Dail on Dail reform, and have been meaning to contribute something to this particular discussion for some time. You know what it is about TDs and Irish politicians generally – we are just human beings. We are a mixed bag, both collectively and as individuals, and that goes for our speeches too, and so were all those other speakers that Deaglan and Desmond mention, and Desmond is right, they were probably no better nor worse than many speakers now. It is my view that some of the best speeches in the Dail and Seanad are usually missed by the meeja, who interestingly got a boo from the crowd when introduced by Ryan Tubridy on College Green. As a politician I laughed about that, it being politicians as a collective group that are usually the brunt of that kind of apparent disaproval. But of course the meeja are a mixed bag collectively and individually too, and as individuals I quite like most of them.

      Yes, I was there for that historic occassion of the Obama speech. He has a good voice, he comes across well, and I was delighted to be there, a few rows back from the podium. But really there wasn’t much content in his speech. There were nice phrases about winter here but springtime just around the corner and us being a small nation that has done big things and so on. There were teleprompters on the President’s left and right, and I presumed he used them, maybe I am wrong, but if I am right and he used teleprompters for his speech how does that compare to the likes of Grattan etc?

      Us run of the mill politicians don’t have teleprompters, nor scriptwriters and most of us in the Dail get up and speak our own words, despite what the cynics think, and much of the content of the speeches of all TDs I have listened to, is interesting, and part of the debate, and covers all manner of stuff from the bits and pieces of the daily lives of the people we represent to global finance and conflict.

      What we need a revival in, more than the art of oratory, is the art of listening, to borrow the main point made in the Irish Times letters page, by one of the letter writers responding to this very article. Although there is that too, and surprisingly my speeches in the Dail are increasingly responded to by people who happen to be tuning in online to that days Dail proceedings. The media play a part in the dumbing down that makes news about the latest row, outrage or sound bite and scuttle from the media gallery as soon as the Party Leaders stop speaking. It is the media that the practice of having scripts is largely tailered to.

      Finally I am not the only one to say it, but while it was great the lift we got from President Obama and the Queen, enough of this aren’t we a great people lark. And the week before we were a terrible people and in a week or so we will probably be terrible again. We are just people and at the ballot box, the people have spoken, so enough of the derogatory naming of the people’s representatives as constituency nurses. Its in the constituencies that the people live their lives and political decisions take effect, and that quite rightly is the stuff of political speeches.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      Just to add that I am borrowing that last point too from another correspondent in the Irish Times today, David Adams, copying being the best form of flattery and all that, but I thought the same thing myself when Brendan Gleeson got up that day on the podium, and said what a great people we Irish were etc.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Proper preparation prevents pi$$ poor performance. The reason I’ll venture is mani-fold. Why there are so many bad public speakers. 1) They don’t believe in what they’re saying 2) The don’t care about what it is they’re talking about 3) They don’t know a thing – or very little – about what it is they’re talking about 4) There’s a national fear of standing up and telling the truth. Part of the National Moral Cowardice. Doubtless comes from the terror of being disgraced by the priests and clatthered be the neanderthal brutes who long-ago were told to teach us our lessons in school. And of course from 800 years of beggars on horseback lashing beggars on foot. (And still the lash goes on) 5) Smart, sharp, barbed wit is more valued by far in Irish social circles than erudition and eloquence. But the former is less suited to public speaking, rather more to intimate/relaxed social groups of well-known acquaintances. The latter is most often confused with arrogance bombast and pompous prolixity. Yus. 6) They haven’t a clue what they’re talking about and have no notion why they’re saying anything but there’s a camera over there 7) Nervousness resulting from any combination of two or more of the above.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Of course Bertie made an art of it. Saying loads while saying nothing at all. Spilling the beans straight into a bigger can. So doubtless many of them are trying to be just like him in that.


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