An Irishman's Diary

Wed, Feb 10, 2010, 00:00

IT IS A remarkable fact that in 50 years of the Irish Timesstudent debates, only one of the competition’s 140 or so winners, team or individual, has gone on to be elected to the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The oddity of this statistic is even more marked because the roll of former champions is almost a Who’s Who of the talking professions. Its spectrum runs from Supreme Court judges (Adrian Hardiman, Donal O’Donnell), to stand-up comedians (Dara Ó Briain), with a plethora of barristers, broadcasters, business leaders, and the occasional celebrity psychiatrist in between.

There is at least one former attorney general (Dermot Gleeson) too. Yet it took 47 years for the competition to claim its first, and so far only, elected member of parliament. Take a bow Rónán Mullen, the independent senator who ascended to the upper house in 2007.

I don’t know whether this is a comment on the kinds of people who win the competition, or on Irish politics: although in fairness to both, there have also been a few near misses.

These include the Misses Robinson and Harney: who reached the Irish Times finals and were not victorious. It might be immodest of us to suggest that it is easier to become President or Tánaiste than to win an Irish Timesdebating title. But of course readers are free to draw this conclusion independently.

In any case, the question of why more former winners have not gone into politics is a subject itself worth of debate. If the convenor had not already chosen a motion for this year’s final, which takes place next week, I might have offered the suggestion: “That this house believes the ability to communicate clearly is not advantageous to a career in Irish politics.” Such a motion would be all the more topical in light of two recent events. First there was Brian Cowen’s speech to the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, wherein for the second year running, he came over all Obama (with a banjo on his knee).

The Taoiseach is held by fading folk memory to be the Dáil’s finest orator; although there is a suspicion among those who have heard him at his best that the real Mr Cowen is still locked up somewhere in the Department of Foreign Affairs, where he used to be minister, and that the figure now bearing his name is a clone created in their own image by evil-genius mandarins in Iveagh House.

At any rate, critics would say the excitement generated by his Chamber of Commerce speeches only proves how low our expectations have fallen in this area.

And then there was George Lee. Not the least regrettable thing about the RTÉ man’s departure from politics was that he did not announce it in an address to the Dáil. So doing, he would have raised the house’s standing even as he left it. But despite his skill as a communicator, he departs public life without having bequeathed a single contender for future collections of Great Irish Speeches.

Maybe in the age of twitter-sized soundbites, great speeches don’t matter any more. Or maybe their influence was always overrated. Consider Joe Higgins, whose passion, wit, and general eloquence in Leinster House is still fondly remembered, even probably by Bertie Ahern, who was usually the butt of it. It didn’t cut any ice with Joe’s constituents, however, who subsequently voted him out.

Or consider what was arguably the most influential Irish political oration of modern times – John Hume’s “single transferable speech”. This derived power not from its eloquence, considerable as that was, but from sheer repetition. He delivered it over and over again, until it burrowed into the consciousness of political rivals who eventually started echoing it, deliberately or otherwise.

And besides, some of the most successful politicians have been downright poor speakers. Parnell, by all accounts, would have struggled in the Irish Times debates. He was so nervous at his early rallies that, clenching his fists, he dug his fingernails into his palms until they bled; and so inarticulate that it was predicted his maiden House of

Commons speech would also be his last.

Even so, he did improve over time. His “no man shall have the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation” has since entered the pantheon, alongside Emmet’s speech from the dock, and Grattan’s final address to the College Green parliament (where the Irish Times debate semi-finals took place last weekend, with the aforesaid Rónán Mullen presiding).

And even in the twittering 21st century, there does still seem to be a public appetite for great rhetoric, if only to judge from the frustration frequently expressed at our leaders’ – Government and opposition – failure to inspire us.

So perhaps as it attempts to replace one charismatic communicator, Fine Gael should send its talent scouts to the Irish Times finals next week, and this time try to recruit a celebrity at the start of his or her career, while s/he still requires climbing equipment rather than a parachute. A word of caution, however. They might be advised to limit their choice to speakers against the motion: “That this house believes Ireland owes a debt of gratitude to Fianna Fáil, 1926-2010.”

The Irish TimesDebate finals take place at Dublin’s Helix Theatre on February 19th.