Latest Behind the Headlines Examines Perils of Political Speech

Posted on: 04 March 2021

In the Trinity Long Room Hub’s latest Behind the Headlines, a panel of five distinguished speakers, including Ambassador to the US, Daniel Mulhall, discussed political language and speech and how oratory can persuade, for both good and bad.

Addressing the online audience, Professor Eve Patten, Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub noted the recent events of January 6th 2021 at Capitol Hill as the impetus to draw on the expertise of the Arts and Humanities and go ‘Behind the Headlines’ to examine what is the current state of play when it comes to the “relationship between speech and action.”


Joining the Trinity Long Room Hub’s online event from Washington, Ambassador Daniel Mulhall, spoke of the many political speeches that have inspired him during his career, and during his postings in India, Germany, Britain and the USA. Commenting on the recent change of administration in the US, Ambassador Mulhall noted President Joe Biden’s “rhetoric of empathy” and reflected on whether he might indeed be able to heal divisions and make the journey to “that further shore”, a line from Seamus Heaney’s Cure at Troy, an adapted verse so centrally part of President Biden’s political campaign.

Quoting Socrates who described rhetoric as a “bag of tricks devised to flatter and deceive the ear”, Professor Martine Cuypers of Trinity College Dublin took the audience back to Ancient Greece where she explored whether the precepts of classical oratory still apply to political speech-making today.

Referring to thinkers such as Aristotle and Cicero, she spoke of the importance of oratory in ancient education, and the belief that there was a direct link between speaking well and responsible leadership as well as the recognition that, in the wrong hands,  “rule by the people”, could quite easily become “tyranny”.

While speakers alluded to the loss of the impassioned speeches of generations gone, others were quick to note the differences across cultures where, for some, history is a reminder of “how raw political passion can unleash forces that become uncontrollable.”

Professor Darryl Jones said that “in an age of populist oratory” the work of George Orwell matters as much as ever. The Professor of Literature at Trinity College Dublin said that Orwell recognised the danger of Hitler and Mussolini in that they grasped the power of nationalism and patriotism so readily espoused from their soap boxes. Quoting Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, he said “there is a real danger to throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made sentences come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you–even think your thoughts for you.”

“Contrary to common understanding, politicians don’t necessarily love speaking”, commented Alan Finlayson, Professor of Political and Social Theory at The University of East Anglia. He said that we as citizens make our politicians speak to us so that we can judge them. He said meaningful “rhetorical citizenship” is prohibited today with “staged” political campaigns and scripted messages based on “an imagined audience.” According to Professor Finlayson, denied the chance to be rhetorical citizens, we distrust politics and within this void or “crisis of rhetorical culture” we see a growth in populist speech that “appears to speak to the people.”

As a practising politician, Senator Ivana Bacik, Reid Professor of Criminal Law in Trinity College Dublin, warned against “the seduction of the soundbite in an age of social media” arguing that “context is lacking.” She highlighted as one of her most memorable speeches, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s address to the Irish Parliament in 2018. The Senator said Pelosi’s words “masked real power” in her direct appeal to Boris Johnson regarding the Good Friday Agreement. This speech prompted her to reflect on “how rarely women are regarded in history as having made great speeches.”

“As the 20th Century drew to a close, we were told that the political speech, delivered on a charged occasion by an eloquent orator was a redundant discursive form in the age of mass media”, commented Professor Darryl Jones. He continued, “we were wrong”.

About Behind the Headlines:

The Trinity Long Room Hub’s ‘Behind the Headlines’ discussion series offers background analyses on current issues by experts drawing on the long-term perspectives of Arts & Humanities research. It aims to provide a forum that deepens understanding, combats simplification and creates space for informed and respectful public discourse.

The Trinity Long Room Hub Behind the Headlines series is supported by the John Pollard Foundation.