Enda Kenny stepped down as Ireland’s Taoiseach yesterday, and his farewell speech, at the National Gallery of Ireland, was an object lesson for British Conservative politicians. Amid the splendour of this palatial building, he delivered a speech which was warm and affable, enlivened with personal revelations and underpinned by heartfelt sincerity. If only our Prime Minister had a smidgeon of his public speaking skills.
Kenny was here to re-open Dublin’s newly renovated National Gallery, which has been under wraps these last six years – the entire duration of his time as Taoiseach. Naturally, it was an easy gig. Yet Kenny didn’t get polite applause. He brought the house down, and he did so by articulating what the people in this room were feeling. Sure, politicians have to make much tougher speeches to much tougher crowds, but Kenny could quite easily have trotted out a dreary address which would have bored these punters senseless. Instead he told us what he really thought and how he really felt, and the result was riveting. Theresa May’s speechwriters should study his speech, for style as much as content. ‘I’m so happy,’ he declared, surveying this beautifully restored building. Such simple words, but when did you last hear a British politician say them?
‘It is my last morning as Taoiseach and my last event as Taoiseach,’ he said, ‘and I’m delighted that we should come to this space to do this event. And I use the word space, not to be pretentious or precious about it, because I actually believe that this gallery, like all other galleries, is not just a place – it is, if you like, a locus of discovery and of possibility. In a sense, it’s a source. And it is in these spaces that we locate ourselves.’
Kenny was talking about art, but he might have been talking about politics. For what is politics without that sense of possibility – a sense of the better lives we might lead? Strip away that idealism and you’re left with last year’s Remain campaign, or this year’s May campaign – just a load of dire warnings about what might happen if you dare to stray.
Contrast May’s cagey sloganeering with what Kenny said yesterday. ‘This house is the house of Ireland. It’s what it holds and what it signifies that means so much to us. It represents our real wealth, it represents our genius, our creativity, our imagination and, indeed, our soul.’
Kenny has a gift that’s common to all great public speakers. He doesn’t care what people think of him. He’s not afraid to speak his mind. He quoted Nietzsche’s dictum that art takes an icepick to the heart. How many British politicians would dare quote Nietzsche, for fear they’d seem elitist? Standing in front of these old masters, Kenny talked about ‘the silent voice’ that asks us: ‘Who are we and why are we here?’
Of course, such sentiments always sound far better delivered in an Irish accent. Yet British politicians dared to be lyrical, once upon a time: Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot were both brilliant orators; Neil Kinnock’s assault on Militant was one of the greatest political performances of modern times. Why have British leaders lost the power of oratory? Theresa May is mocked for her robotic speaking style, but Jeremy Corbyn said nothing memorable in the election campaign. We’re told politicians should campaign in poetry and govern in prose, but there was no poetry in our election – from either side. Kenny reminds us we all need a little poetry, and not only at election time. ‘What I wanted to try to do, in politics and in government, was to breathe life into ourselves, as a society,’ he concluded. It’s what all decent politicians try to do. What’s so bad about saying so?
As Kenny observed, the term Impressionist was first coined as a term of abuse (as was the term Tory). Unlike the Irish, our politicians are afraid to speak from the heart, for fear of mockery – and merely end up being mocked for hiding behind bland soundbites. They lack the bravery to state their true beliefs, and Mrs May lacks it most of all. What is she passionate about? What does she believe in? No-one seems to know, and until she tells us, from the heart, there’s no way the electorate can believe in her. ‘It’s about identity – it’s about belonging,’ said Kenny yesterday. He was talking about a gallery, but he could have been describing the lifeblood of a political party. Without that sense of kinship a political party is nothing, and that kinship is sustained and nurtured by passionate speeches like these.