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John-Paul McCarthy: Aras needs an austerity of a different stripe


President Michael D Higgins

President Michael D Higgins

President Michael D Higgins

There seems to be a consensus that President Higgins's popularity has much to do with his command of language. He is praised for "speaking out" on this issue or that. But even those who admire the old-school socialist values that suffuse his rhetoric get a bit tangled up in places.

Vincent Browne wrote recently about the President's "accursed affliction for which there is no cure", namely his addiction to "clever obfuscatory verbiage, couched in dense sociologyese".

Gene Kerrigan echoed Browne's irritation when he referred to the President's weakness for "slightly florid language".

The Browne-Kerrigan critique does not lack for examples. President Higgins's remarks at a recent conclave at TCD made obscure references to what he called "an agenda for living" and "the possibility and practice of ethics and politics of memory".

The President's Strasbourg address last month, the one that brought the house down by all accounts, contained references to something called "an integrated discourse" which pitted "speculative markets" against the values that are distilled from "Greek democracy, Roman law, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the reformation, the enlightenment, the great democratic revolution that began in France".

This last juxtaposition offered rich rhetorical fare for sure – Socrates versus Soros – but this was all it offered.

Even factoring in President Higgins's lack of executive powers, this kind of analysis makes for painful reading when set against some of the other rhetorical interventions in the euro crisis. Take, for example, the intervention of Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski last year.

In a speech in Berlin, Sikorski explained the design flaw at the heart of the euro in a way that non-economists can understand (monetary union minus some form of fiscal union can end in disaster).

Sikorski said he feared German lassitude more than her economic brawn.

"We ask Berlin to admit that it is the biggest beneficiary of current arrangements and that it therefore has the biggest obligation to make them sustainable. As Germany knows best, she is not an innocent victim of others' profligacy. In addition, Germany, which should have known better, broke the stability and growth pact, and its banks recklessly bought risky bonds."

Now that's an integrated discourse if ever there was one, a master class even in the politics of anti-austerity.

Whoever is writing President Higgins's speeches needs to embrace austerity – rhetorical austerity that is – and shop around for superior rhetorical role models.

Help is available though.

His secretariat could do worse than study the work of William Safire in the USA.

Safire was a mere tyro working on the margins of the White House in 1969 when he was asked to prepare a few lines for possible use by Nixon if the moon landing ended in disaster. This was a delicate assignment, not least because of Nixon's unpredictable tastes. (After all, Nixon's famous tapes contained monologues like this: "You know, it's a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalising marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob?")

Safire did some doodling anyway for a couple of hours.

Like all natural writers, he knew that whatever he came up with needed to be sparing on the adjectives and the adverbs.

What he produced in the end was a psalmodic 11-line draft that still shines as brightly as his surname.

"These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin," Safire began "know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice."

The bitterness of this opening note needed a slight sweetening, which Safire provided next with the promise that: "They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown."

Safire was not tempted by any of the hard charging Kennedy-era Cold War bombast, that unlovely style that militarised everything from the space race to the western frontier.

He ended on a note of commingled grief and pride: "Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts."

The odd thing about President Higgins's rhetorical corpus is that he speaks like Safire when he speaks in Irish.

The most effective passage in his TCD speech on identity was the spare Irish section where he spoke movingly about what he called "ar n-aigne phobail", an elegant formulation you won't find in the dictionary but which means our public mind or community ethos.

By happy coincidence, there is no Irish for integrated discourse. Funnily enough, we've never needed one.

Irish Independent