Wednesday, February 28, 2007


We all have had a couple of days to reflect on Trevor Sargent's unforgettable speech to his Ard Fheis in Galway.

Sadly, tragically, it just doesn't get any better with the passage of time.

The script was passable, though with far too much name-checking of candidates.

The sentiments were fine, laudable even when he started talking about children at the end.

But the delivery. Jesus Mary and Joseph.

What could you compare it with? Mayo in last year's All Ireland? Ireland's dismal victory over San Marino? Worse if anything. Britney shaving her hair off? That bad.

Sargent bounded onto stage like a tele evangelist. With his arms aloft and booming voice it looked like he could maintain the illusion, perhaps even perform a miracle along the way.

But after that it was downhill for most of the way. There were bits of random roaring followed by bits of speed-whispering, like a racing commentator who has lost his voice. The effect was disconcerting and a little weird.

He rallied a little towards the end. But compared to his strong and even performance in Cork last year, this was not his finest half hour, his delivery being weak and ropey.

When I asked one of his colleagues later, he said that it was probably a mixture of nerves and too much adrenaline and an uncertainty over the timing.

The thing is, however, that it won't make much difference ultimately. Speech-making in Ireland doesn't have the power it has in the US or, arguably, in Britain.

Sure Pat Rabbitte had a great speech this year - it was rightly lauded. But in the normal course of events, a leader does very well if he or she gets through their half hour without fluffing their lines or gaffing or swallowing their glottises.

Bertie Ahern is a poor speaker. His leader's address can be purgatory to listen to. He sometimes sounds like a man who is slowly choking to death. And he is never helped by the script that isn't suited to his style of delivery.

Enda Kenny can be surprisingly good - Kenny's big problem is when he doesn't have a script, or hasn't been fully briefed, and needs to think on his feet.

Gerry Adams is good, though he has an annoying habit of sometimes being ultra patronising, sometimes being cloying sentimental.

Mary Harney never used an auto-cue; she learned her speeches de ghlan-mheabhair - like an actor remembering her lines. That added an edge to her speechifying, made them interesting, unpredictable. Michael McDowell - for all his panache as an orator - delivered a pedestrian first speech as leader this year.

Albert Reynolds was not great either, though his folksiness got him through those long half hours. John Bruton wasn't bad, except for the time Twink spoiled the national conference. Haughey wasn't the Mae West - his nasalised drone couldn't sustain a half hour or hour-long script.

For all his other abilities, Dick Spring was no Bill Clinton when it came to addressing the faithful. The alliterative cluster that comes to mind is dry, drone, dreary, dead.

Either was Michael Noonan whose sharp wit never came out in his leader's speeches, which always sounded creepy enough to come straight from the cemetery.

One veteran Fine Gael TD told me that Liam Cosgrave always sounded and looked like a man who had just swallowed a bottle of rat poison.

Before Haughey it's a bit vague for me. I remember seeing some archive footage of the late Michael O'Leary in the late 1960s or early 1970s; probably before he became Labour leader. He was in full flow and seemed angry, impressive.

Who's good? Clinton obviously. Obama is, definitely. I remember seeing Chris Patten - the Tory Party chairman - speak at one of their Brighton or Bournemouth conference. He was electrifying.

Just a small note on Leaders Questions today. Enda Kenny brought up the results of this survey that suggested that a high number of Irish teenagers have experimented with drugs, tobacco and alcohol (see the debate here).

Leaders Questions allows opposition leaders to ask a question without notice. That means that Bertie Ahern does not have a clue what he will be asked about.

But he has very diligent and very prescient civil servants who prepare for all eventualities. In front of him each day is a big ledger-like book indexed from A to Z. So if somebody is asking him about a relatively obscure subject like a survey on teenagers he just flicks to T for Teenager or D for drugs to find the relevant details.

The most impressive use of the A to Z was when Pat Rabbitte asked a question about a family with autistic children in a week in which they were nowhere near the news. The Bert had the family's case history at his fingertips. It was impressive but also very weird - almost as weird as Trevor Sargent's speech this week.

And just to remind you of Sargent's other great performance this year, here is his unmissable guest appearance on Podge and Rodge.


Dan Sullivan said...

It can be quite surprising how some folks come across so poorly on the box or the radio. Enda is personable and relaxed in person, as too is Bertie. I've found Rabbitte to be somewhat testy in person, as if he is looking for some sign that you're out to catch him out, so he can get his retaliation in first.

It can work the other way too though, I remember a school friend of mine who told me he was thinking "You know I'd vote for that guy and I actually know him" after hearing me on the radio in 2004. I've only ever done audience pieces for telly. Which looking at them on the RTe archive seem ok, part of it is not thinking about who is watching and just getting on with saying what your point was.

Harry McGee said...

Dan, Enda is the most relaxed. Bertie tends to be a bit cagey especially around journalists. Pat Rabbitte can be cagey - some journalists find him to be a bit superior. He doesn't like small talk, that's for sure. And that great euphemistic cliché - he doesn't suffer fools glady - might have been coined for him. H.