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The power of speech

One of my duties at the European Parliament is to be ‘rapporteur’ on the EU Singapore Trade Deal. I inherited this duty from a departing UK MEP, Barbara Gibson.

Because the Singapore trade deal is already operational, there’s not a huge amount of work that goes with being rapporteur.

I hosted an online meeting for interested MEPs earlier this year. Not surprisingly, not too many showed up.

I also met with the Singapore ambassador to the EU in his embassy in Brussels - one of my first in-person meetings since the outbreak of Covid.

Getting to speak in the Dail in my day used to be easy. As a backbencher it wasn’t a case of looking for speaking time. Rather, you were constantly asked if you would be willing to volunteer to speak for 10 minutes on the Second Stage debate on a piece of legislation or a resolution.

“Don’t answer the phone”, I’d say to my assistant, “it’s the whip’s office on about the Consolidated Fishing Vessels (Access to the South China Sea) Amendment Bill.”

The media didn’t stick around for second stage debates, upping sticks after Leaders’ Questions or the theatrics of the Order of Business.

So you could prepare your speech and have a leisurely time of it expounding your views on the Transport Bill or the Criminal Justice Bill or something of only marginal public interest, confident in the knowledge that even the most outrageous gaffe was not in any danger of onward publication.

The European Parliament is a completely different experience. Most of the work is in the Committees and the full Parliament (plenary) only meets once a month for three days.

For this reason, speaking time is at a premium. Slots are doled out to senior MEPs or those who are dealing with the file in question in the Committees. Needless to say, Singapore hasn’t made it on the agenda very much lately.

Over the last five plenaries, I have only been able to secure one speaking slot. Dear Reader, I am sorry to say that the slot I was assigned was for just one minute.

My sixty seconds of work was on the subject of ratifying the Brexit Agreement. I thought I had better make this count. I try to focus on saying just one thing and also focus on saying it in a memorable way.

Without completely losing the run of myself, I am aware that of all the world’s most memorable and quotable speeches, only a few sentences, or maybe just a phrase, are remembered. We all know Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ phrase but not his ‘I have a dream’ speech which went on for about an hour.

When George Bernard Shaw said that he didn’t have time to write a short letter, he was saying that it takes some time and effort to condense meaning.

On the occasion in question I didn’t succeed in making a memorable speech. Nevertheless, I may have made a sufficient impression on Vice-President Sefcovic who was in the chamber. I believe that our offices have developed a good working relationship since then.

Just before Christmas, I definitely succeeded in making an impression with another one minute speech proposing that the European Parliament should retain an empty chair in the chamber to symbolise our hope that the UK will one day return.

The speech was seen by over 100,000 people.

The good news is that this week at the July plenary I have secured another one minute slot on the subject of Disinformation.

At this rate, I can expect to have had a total of four minutes speaking time for the whole of 2021. Or, over the course of my mandate, a total of 16 minutes speaking time. I think I spoke for 20 minutes on the Consolidated Fishing Vessels (Access to the South China Sea) Amendment Bill.

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