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Colm O'Gorman Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland via Photocall Ireland
Famous words

My favourite speech: executive director of Amnesty International Colm O'Gorman

Continuing our summer series on of public figures’ favourite speeches, Colm O’Gorman picks the first major speech of the president who saw Czechoslovakia become the Czech Republic.

THE AUTHOR AND former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan once said: “A speech is poetry: cadence, rhythm, imagery, sweep!  A speech reminds us that words, like children, have the power to make dance the dullest beanbag of a heart.”

One can not underestimate the power of a good speech or the effectiveness of a speech’s key line.

With that in mind, over the course of the summer is asking some of the most prominent figures in Irish society from politicians to sports stars to nominate their favourite speech of all time and tell us why they like it so much.

Today: The executive director of Amnesty International, founder of One in Four, and former senator Colm O’Gorman. He writes:

In the space of two months, from 17 November to 29 December 1989, the totalitarian regime that had ruled Czechoslovakia for more than 40 years was overthrown by a peaceful uprising.

The Velvet Revolution ended one party communist rule and saw playwright, poet and dissident Václav Havel elected as President. Havel’s first major speech to his people, made on 1 January 1990, must rank as one of the great political speeches of all time. Reading it today, in post Celtic Tiger Ireland, I am struck by how much it resonates.

Not that I am making a direct comparison between communist era Czechoslovakia and boom time Ireland, of course, but his themes about the need for power to serve the common good, his appeal for a state that could hold dear concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility and forgiveness.

Perhaps, above all, his reminder that those who accept an unjust or corrupt system as an unchangeable fact are responsible for helping to perpetuate it. Havel decried a system which “reduced man to a force of production, and nature to a tool of production”.

In contrast, perhaps we might consider how our recent economic mania reduced so many of us to units of consumption, how in ways perhaps we are also emerging from our very own “contaminated moral environment”. His speech also reminds me that there is no perfect system of government or no perfect political culture.

He speaks powerfully of how no government can achieve anything of real value on its own. Havel reminds us a just society is dependent upon the determined and demanding engagement of a people who understand and act upon their responsibility to participate in democracy, who will not only expect freedom, dignity and rights for themselves as individuals, but will demand equal protection and dignity for all.

This oversized photograph of Václav Havel was installed on the National Museum building on Prague’s Wenceslas Square in the centre of Prague, Czech Republic, during Havel’s state funeral on Friday, 23 December, 2011. (CTK Photo/Rene Fluger/Czech News Agency/Press Association Images)

The full speech by Václav Havel can be read here. You can watch the speech (with English subtitles) below:


Read more from our ‘Favourite Speeches’ summer series

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