Big Ian v Biggar
An Irishman’s Diary about the art of political oratory
‘If the video archivists are to believed, Rev Ian Paisley’s greatest single utterance was bellowing “Never! Never! Never!” once, somewhere. Which is indeed still impressive to witness, but hardly a candidate for the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.’ Photograph: The Irish Times
It used to be a truism of Irish political life that, whether you loved or loathed him, the Rev Ian Paisley was a great orator. And no doubt he was, in a narrow sense. Certainly, his ability to hold a room or church served him well for most of his dual careers.
But one of the things that struck me about his interview with Eamonn Mallie is how little of anything he ever said is now quotable. In fact, confronted by Mallie with some of his past rhetorical flourishes, Paisley himself either couldn’t remember them, or didn’t want to (it was hard to know where fading recall ended and latter-day reinvention began).
When I try to remember a famous Paisley phrase now, it’s mostly slogans – “No surrender!” or “Save Ulster from sodomy” – that come to mind. Apart from those, only the vehemence with which he said no to things, rather than any phrase, stands out.
Indeed, if the video archivists are to believed, his greatest single utterance was bellowing “Never! Never! Never!” once, somewhere. Which is indeed still impressive to witness, but hardly a candidate for the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
Perhaps he can console himself that being quotable to posterity is not always a good thing. Eamon de Valera, for example, is today best remembered for his “laughter of happy maidens” speech – recalled, more often than not, in mockery. But at least Dev was trying to say what he was for, something Paisley in his prime rarely did.
Another truism – that great political oratory is a lost art – may be holding up better than the former DUP leader’s reputation as a speaker. And yet, apart from being an entertaining thing in itself, I suspect an ability to make brilliant speeches has always been overrated as a means of getting things done.
It’s no coincidence that some of the most quoted modern orators, such as JFK and Martin Luther King, had their messages of idealism immortalised by premature death.
By contrast, Barack Obama’s early flourishes (which were probably overhyped even then, because his speaking style has palled a bit since) were no match for White House realities. Similarly, closer to home, one of our best political debaters used to be Brian Cowen. And in office, that didn’t work out very well either.
On the other hand, I’ve never heard John Hume described as an orator. In fact, his “single transferrable speech” of the 1990s occasionally sapped the will to live of journalists and others who were overexposed to it. And yet, it may also be the most influential Irish speech in living memory.