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.”