Sunday, August 20, 2017


I had never heard of this guy until today when the Kennedy Summer School retweeted a thread of his which recounted the story of an Obama speech with which he was involved. I was impressed and retweeted it myself. Then I heard an extensive interview with him by Marian Finucane and was even more impressed.

Incidentally it brought back to mind some of my own contact with speech writing and related matters in the course of my career in the Civil Service.

If a minister was going to make a speech relating to your policy area you did up a draft which would go up the line and hopefully come out at least vaguely recognisable at the other end. Most of my colleagues would have been involved in speech writing at various stages over their careers.

Of course, as far as the public was concerned, the speech was the Minister's, unless it turned out to be interminably boring or unexpectedly controversial, in which case the blame lay with the poor idiot civil servant who drafted it in the first place. Tricky area speeches.

Tom O'Donnell, former Minister for the Gaeltacht

I can't launch into this without paying homage to that master of the delivery, Tom O'Donnell. He was never my minister and I never drafted anything for him.

But, I was at this Irish language function down the country where Tom was to make a speech.

He turned up and took out his piece of paper which contained the carefully drafted speech and started reading.

"A Chairde, is mór an onóir domsa bheith anseo in bhur measc anocht. Ba mhaith liom tagairt a dhéanamh do pholasaí na Roinne i leith na Gaeilge agus na Gaeltachta."

At this point, he folded up his script and put it away, telling his audience that it was a load of rubbish given to him by the crowd up in Dublin (ie his civil servants).

He then continued, in Irish, to give an animated exposition of his own policy for the Irish language and the Gaeltacht.

The fact that this corresponded almost word for word with the piece of paper in his pocket was irrelevant. He got his message across and struck a blow for local freedom all at the same time.

I was lost in admiration and have never forgotten it to this day.

Tom was a Limerick man.

Martin O'Donoghue, former Minister for Economic Planning and Development

Martin made loads of speeches, at least one a day. And he looked for appropriate material from his Department. The Department was very small so we were all involved in a frenzy of speech writing while it lasted.

Martin didn't want text. He wanted bullet points and would do his own embroidery on the spot. This meant that the written material was short but, believe you me, I'd prefer to have been writing text.

It is very difficult to get the nuances over in bullet points and the Minister is not always fully up to speed on the details of what is going on (nor should he necessarily be). And very often you didn't know what he actually said and found it difficult to counter claims from supplicants who thought they had been promised something.

A lot of these speeches were not strictly speaking policy related. He might be opening a factory or inaugurating a shopping centre for the second time, now that a more appropriate anchor tenant had been found. [Note to me: don't mention Dúnlaoghaire.]

Well this one was for the opening of a manufacturing unit, I think in Shannon, and the subject was small is beautiful. I think I thought that up myself because we were very anxious to encourage SMEs and local entrepreneurship.

It was a good thing I did my research. They were manufacturing bras and had just been taken over by some big conglomerate.

You can't be too careful.

Charlie McCreevy, former Minister for Finance

I can't offhand remember the full context for this one. The Minister was to make a speech in Bonn and we were very anxious to make a pitch for FDI. As it turned out the minister got tied up and the ambassador had to deliver the speech. I gather it went down well.

However, there was a background which might not have been obvious to the audience.

I had put in a list of the points which we hoped would attract firms to set up in Ireland - the usual stuff, educated workforce, access to EU market, favourable tax régime. And of course I included English speaking. It is one of our strong points in this particular context and the IDA push it all the time. But it was excised from my draft and despite my quoting IDA etc. did not reappear. Perhaps the ambassador ad-libbed, who knows?

I think I see the phychology here but it is economic lunacy. A bit of a Brexit moment you might think.

You see, it was the English what imposed their foreign tongue on us and in the process brutally suppressed our native language, which language we have unsuccessfully been trying to restore ever since. And it is now the first national language, enshrined in the Constitution.

But really.

Brian Cowen, former Minister for Finance

There are times when the content of a speech becomes more or less unimportant. These are occasion when it is the actual physical presence of the Minister that's the thing.

On such occasions the speech can become difficult and even dangerous. The speech writer's task is to fly below the radar, make sure they're not accidentally making policy on the fly and at the same time not bore the audience to tears.

I remember one such occasion when Brian Cowen was going along and I got the speech to write. I decided to simply do a recap of current policy in a few areas. With this in mind I consulted colleagues and got a stock of material which I worked into a speech which I hoped was unmemorable.

Imagine my shock the next morning when I found it headlined in the paper as the Minister striking out in all sorts of new areas. Fortunately it was a one day wonder and all returned to normal fairly quickly.

I never really found out what had happened. Perhaps it was the silly season, I don't remember. Perhaps I had set out current policy with such clarity that the journalists were only then waking up to what was actually going on.

Whatever it was, I learned nothing from it. I had been ultra careful to avoid any hint of creativity or innovation. I could not have been more careful. So I just had to put it down to one of those things, and move on

Jacques Attali, former President EBRD

I was present at the inauguration of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in London in 1991. I had written the Minister's (Albert Reynolds) speech which was forward looking and a lot more polite about Jacques Attali than if I had been giving it myself in a closed session.

The Minister really had no time for all this ceremonial and after the first day he got fed up with the whole thing. I got a call in the middle of the night to say he wanted to go straight back to Dublin. This was arranged for first thing the following morning.

His speech was scheduled for that morning and as I was now Head of Delegation I was faced with either cancelling it or making it myself. As I had written the speech I was loath to see it vanish so I opted to give it myself.

The Norwegian Minister, whose speech was scheduled for the afternoon, was also anxious to be gone. He was looking for a morning speaker to swap with and, as I was going to be around anyway, I swapped slots with the Norwegians.

That gave me plenty of time to make a some amendments to the speech and insert a few, not too obvious, digs at Attali who had been getting on my wick from a good while back.

I did inform the secretariat of both the swap and change of personnel but the latter never got as far as the captioners in the video room. So the video of me went out captioned as Albert Reynolds, Governor for Ireland.

It is now presumably reposing in some archive and may well confuse historians in times to come.

The message here is that, given the right circumstances, speech writing can be very fulfilling and real fun.

Ruairí Quinn, former Minister for Finance

This one is not about writing a speech but something analogous - preparing for delivering a speech which was sure to be met with pent up frustration and hostility, and surviving the Q&A that followed it.

This happened at the EBRD's Annual Meeting in London in 1997. The Irish Finance Minister, Ruairí Quinn, was Chairman of the Board of Governors for that meeting and in this capacity he would hold a press conference at the end of the meeting.

Now the 1997 meeting involved a number of serious cock-ups. The two major ones I remember were that the location chosen for the press room turned out to be a dead area for most if not all mobile phones and the arrangements for registration were such that CEOs of multinationals were left queueing for long periods.

There was anger in the air in the press room and Ruairí looked like facing a hostile press mob.

The Bank took a ruthlessly professional approach to this. They organised a rehearsal press conference for the Minister and literally tore him to bits. Chairman or no Chairman, they had a job to do for the Bank and they did it. I cringed. Ruairí did well, but was a bit shaken, particularly as he personally shared the criticism of the secretariat and along with the Bank's president had privately bawled out the secretary general at a very tough session the previous day.

And so to the press conference. The Chairman took it on the chin. He did apologise for the mistakes that were made but, having survived the earlier ruthless grilling by the Bank's own press people, the actual press conference, tough as it might have seemed to an outsider, proved to be a doddle.

This whole incident increased my respect for both Ruairí, who took his grilling by the Bank staff in the spirit in which it was intended, and for the Bank staff who must have been feeling very uncomfortable but showed no quarter in the wider interest of the Bank.

So, bring it on at the Kennedy Summer School and let's hear Cody do his bit.

Cody's interview with Marian Finucane

Cody's session at the Kennedy Summer School

1 comment:

Póló said...

Given the shenanigans, or worse, that's going on in the White House at at the moment, it struck me that I should not neglect to mention the occasion when an attempt was made to wrest from me the writing of the Irish Minister/Governor's speech to the annual meeting of the EBRD.

In theory, these speeches by Governors are supposed to set the tone of the Bank's operation over the following year. In fact they are mostly ignored by the Bank and are, often as not, intended for home consumption.

Having been involved in the negotiations setting up the Bank, during an Irish EU Presidency, I had a strong interest in its success and generally used the speech as a combination of stocktaking and stressing a few priorities for the future.

I was EBRD desk officer in the Irish administration and had overall responsibility for policy towards the Bank and for the administration's liaison with it.

At one stage we had a Director on the board of the Bank, who, while not anxious generally to take any extra work on himself, made a specific grab for drafting the Governor's speech which I think he saw as a path to glory. He made a point of informing me that other Directors on the board drafted such speeches for their Governors. Given his predilection for giving out about everyone and everything, I didn't want to let him within an ass's roar of drafting the speech and have me spend the rest of the year rebuilding bridges.

It was a little tricky though. He had been nominated to the board by the Minister and had strong connections with the then current Government. He had already complained me to the Minister for asking him to do work which he felt was useless, although I knew that both the Minister and I felt it was very useful.

In the end I told him that if there were matters he felt should be included in the Minister's speech he could send me some text and I would consider it.

Thankfully, stripped of its glorious potential that never arrived