Derek Mooney: As a Government speech writer, I know how Enda could have got it just right

Derek Mooney

Back in the day when I was writing ministerial speeches, I used to watch the American TV series The West Wing as longingly as a parched man watching a spring water commercial.

There was I facing a blank word document on my PC, while the West Wing's Sam Seaborn debates the merits of the word "vigorously" in a presidential speech with a team of speech writers.

When it was originally conceived, The West Wing was intended to focus on Seaborn, the speech writer. He was to be the central character through whose eyes we saw the story unfold, perhaps because the show's writer, Aaron Sorkin saw the writer as the often unsung hero.


Anyway ... there was Sam and his massive team of writers, while here was unsung me trying to craft a script that wouldn't put its audience into a coma.

Framing a speech depended on what type it was.

Technical set-piece speeches, such as a Second Stage speech on legislation, were mainly written by civil servants. My role was confined to adding a sentence or two to the opening or closing paragraphs to sum up the legislation's goals.

As the intended audience widened, so did my role. The request to speak at an event would be put in the minister's diary and various sections in your department and other departments would be asked to forward material.

The press office would assemble these into some order, adding a message that reflected Government policy and send to me for final drafting.

But this process only applied to speeches directly relevant to the department's brief. Where the topic of the speech went broader or was more political the message was: you're on your own

Which brings me back to my blank screen and my even blanker stare. This is the point where you wrack your brain for inspiration. Words and phrases you have heard before swim about as you attempt to get something on that damn page as you recall the mantra of the jobbing writer "Don't get it right, just get it written".

You don't write a speech in sequence from beginning until the end, you start where you can and work out. You add lines and paragraphs and gradually build a script around a central message or theme, with a beginning a middle and an end.

You will have asked the minister what message he wants to convey. You will have looked around to see if your colleagues have produced anything on a similar theme. You will have searched speeches from the Taoiseach's office, as these usually cover wider areas than any individual ministers.

But, you are doing this alone and probably against the clock. In these circumstances there is nothing wrong with googling to get inspiration, particularly when you go to the best sources. The problem arises when you just copy and paste the results.

Enda's advisers could have avoided the Taoiseach's unnecessary embarrassment with the inclusion of a simple intro line: "Mr President, I can do not better than to paraphrase what you said in Grant Park ... "


While his speechwriter may have thought including something like that would be a bit clunky and detract from the speech's rhythm and flow, it would have turned the use of a great piece of Obama oratory into a more fitting tribute.

I still write speeches for others. The nature of the business is that I accept that I will not get public credit for my work. That is fine, that is what the fees are for. But I still try to adhere to what I call my speech writer's code: my work going publicly unacknowledged is a matter for me. I should not compound the issue by failing to publicly acknowledge the work of others.