The yawnfest that is otherwise known as the Leader’s speech

The late Liam Cosgrave photographed by the Connacht Tribune at the opening of the extension to the Franciscan Brothers’ Agricultural College in Mountbellew in September 1975.
The late Liam Cosgrave photographed by the Connacht Tribune at the opening of the extension to the Franciscan Brothers’ Agricultural College in Mountbellew in September 1975.

World of Politics with Harry McGee – harrymcgee@gmail.com

Leaders speeches at Ard Fheiseanna are one of those unusual set-piece events, allowing an unfettered half-hour for the leader to set out his or her stall to party members, and also to a wider audience on TV. They are, by their very nature, partisan, but as the communications element of politics has become organised over the years, the speeches have become more controlled, more predictable, and less interesting.

In the old days, the speeches were rambunctious and intended for the crowd of diehard supporters in the hall. They were not seeking subtle distinctions; they were seeking a good-old fashioned rough-and-tumble put-down of their political enemies.

Former Fine Gael Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, was one who obliged the faithful.

In the more febrile atmosphere, Cosgrave had no scruples when it came to attacking his detractors. Responding to his critics in 1977, he made a very pointed attack (and nowadays, it would be considered completely unacceptable) on British-born journalist Bruce Arnold and the South African born academic Kader Asmal).

“Not for the first time, this party has stood between the people of this country and anarchy. Remember those people who comment so freely and write so freely. Some of them are not even Irish.

“No doubt, many of you are familiar with an expression in some parts of the country where an outsider is described as a blow-in. As far as we care concerned they can blow out.”

Five years earlier, in 1972 he referred to internal critics within Fine Gael as a “den of mongrel foxes”.

Apparently, he had had two or three glasses of whiskey before standing up on the podium.

Charlie Haughey used to do the same at Fianna Fáil, whipping up the tribal instincts by playing the green card in his speeches. The most memorable was “Northern Ireland is a failed political entity”.

TV has changed all that. Nowadays, leaders tend to steer clear of that kind of rhetoric – the roustabout stuff is left to the warm-up speaker who takes crowd-pleasing potshots at political opponents. Mayo Minister Michael Ring did that on Saturday night with unaccompanied roaring that would have sounded loud at a death metal gig.

In this age, there are always outliers of course and, globally, Donald Trump is the first one who springs to mind with his deliberately provocative stump speeches.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.