Belfast Telegraph

Sammy's the man when it comes to Commons' touch

The Speaker, as a survivor of controversies himself, may see something of a kindred spirit in Sammy Wilson, says Malachi O'Doherty

Who would have thought that the Speaker's verdict on the oratorical skills of our Westminster politicians would put Sammy Wilson at the top of the pile?

In a house that sets legendary standards in public speaking from a history of cutting eloquence and high flown rhetoric, from Winston Churchill and Tony Blair, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle, it never seemed likely that the local representative who would most impress would be the honourable joker from East Antrim.

Mind you, he's not bad.

He is one of the few who has talked Stephen Nolan to a standstill on his show. He has a winning wit, grounded in a gift for speaking plainly, with a disregard for the positions that more polished intellectuals might take.

He is conscientiously incorrect politically.

He jibes that his opponents might be suffering from Alzheimer's disease, without any sense that he might be offending those who actually do. Climate change and the survival of the Euro are two of the great concerns of modern times that Sammy has assured us we don't need to get too stressed over.

And as the standard warm-up man for the DUP party conference, he appeals to a community that wants its conservative values endorsed. He doesn't do God but they forgive him that because he seems to ripple with earthy good sense. He contrasts himself with a political culture dominated by liberal concerns and what his people would see as fads and trends.

Sammy could have been a sort of Les Dawson or Bernard Manning figure, whose humour is grounded on the understanding that the world is as it has always been and is pretty much going to stay that way.

He presents himself as a rugged and simple soul who has survived an education without any of that tripe attaching itself to him. And he is likeable, more so since the end of the Troubles freed him to be less angry and caustic.

He comes across as someone who always wanted life and politics to be more fun than the gunmen allowed.

But he is caught between being the court jester and the serious voice of authority.

That pesky side of his nature will always make people wonder how seriously to take him and might be the ultimate bar to him ever being party leader.

And that endorsement of his eloquence from Speaker Bercow may not be worth as much as it seems.

For one thing, we have not had many great orators here. The best public speakers in political life in the last few decades were probably Ian Paisley, John Alderdice and Robert McCartney.

Ian Paisley built his career on oratory and preaching and could hold an audience enrapt. He enjoyed public speaking so much that he would set up stall outside the City Hall in Belfast and preach to passersby. But he has been past his dazzling best for years.

Alderdice was awesome at party conferences and in the Forum before being made Speaker of the Assembly and losing the right to snipe at people.

The loss was ours. He never made it to Westminster.

Bob McCartney did but wasn't there for long and that was over a decade ago. But he had made himself rich with his court room eloquence.

Most of our best speakers have been in political minorities rather than in the main stream. Look at Eamonn McCann and Bernadette McAliskey. If they could have lent their gifts to a party that was actually going somewhere they would have towered over the whole political scene. A similar tale could be told of Jim Allister, a brilliant speaker, sharp and logical, but just out of touch with the mood of the country.

Contemporary rivals of Sammy Wilson for the gold star for public speaking include some dire performers and a few others who hardly ever show up in Westminster. It is no great credit to him that he can outstrip the SDLP members, Alasdair McDonnell, Mark Durkan and Margaret Ritchie for instance. None of them can perform with any dash at all.

He has no competition from Sinn Fein, since they don't take their seats. But neither would he have to worry about them outshining him in wit, verbosity or colour, if they did show up.

Naomi Long and Sylvia Hermon are both talented speakers, but we have to take into account here the subjective perspective of Speaker Bercow and he may not just have the sort of heart that can be warmed, or softened, by either of them.

As someone who has survived controversies himself, he may see something of a kindred spirit in Sammy Wilson. Weaker people would have crumpled with embarrassment after the chiding Sammy took for prancing naked in French fields - though who among us hasn't?

Bercow has been excoriated for his handling of the expenses scandal, for letting the police search offices in Westminster and has had to preserve his dignity while his wife's reputation as a sprightly lady has soared.

It is not hard to see why a man who has endured such humiliation might glance across the floor of the Commons to find fellow feeling and and a spark of human warmth in the glad eyes of Sammy.

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