Eoin Butler's Q&A


MIKE MURPHYon the visual arts, Bertie Ahern and, of course, Jedward

Your new show, ‘Masterpiece’, will attempt to identify Ireland’s favourite painting. What are the criteria for inclusion?

The paintings don’t have to be Irish, but they do have to be held in a public collection in this country. The winner will be decided in a public vote. But first there’ll be presentations from well-known personalities, whom the public may not previously have known had an interest in the visual arts.

Oh God. You don’t mean Jedward?

I don’t know why I’m laughing . . . For all I know, it could be!

Is it a little absurd to pit popular Irish painters like Seán Keating, say, in direct competition against people like Vermeer or Caravaggio?

I think it adds spice. A similar argument arose years ago when I was on the board of Rosc. The Irish artists were adamant they wanted their work shown alongside the high-rollers from Europe and America. Initially, I was resistant. I thought they might not do themselves justice in that company. But they ended up fitting in very well.

Rosc board member and ‘Winning Streak’ presenter: Are those strange bullet points to have on your CV alongside each other?

No, but I have had people say to me, in rather arch tones, oh, I wouldn’t have thought you’d be interested in art or literature.

I was coming at it from the other direction. I remember seeing you on ‘Winning Streak’ shooting potatoes into outer space or something, and thinking what the hell is he doing there?

Well, I never had any problem with either. I enjoyed doing Winning Streak and I never felt in any way elitist about the arts.

Your ‘Mike Murphy Meets . . .’ with Bertie Ahern late last year was well received. How did you land that interview?

I had known Bertie for years. Not intimately, but he may have felt he’d get an easy ride from me, that I wouldn’t be an aggressive interviewer. I didn’t want to wag my finger at him but I did want to know what, in the name of God, possessed him to take that money from those guys? I think he was surprised I questioned him in such detail. Afterwards, one of his people said ‘I don’t think he’ll do an interview with you again’.

Do I believe Bertie was corrupt?

No, I don’t. But I do think he was so cute that he didn’t want his left hand to know what the right was doing. And he got confused between the two.

Was the interview complicated by the fact that your property development company, Harcourt Developments made substantial donations to Fianna Fáil?

I wouldn’t have thought so. During the boom years, so to speak, we did make contributions to Fianna Fáil, as did every developer. But it wasn’t a lot and we contributed to all of the political parties, not just Fianna Fáil.

Harcourt is reported to have made about €220,000 in political donations, including €129,000 to Fianna Fáil, and €49,900 to the PDs. That isn’t a lot?

We’re talking about over a 15-year period here. And we never went over the legal limit.

I’ve never donated to a political party. But if I did, I imagine I’d donate to the party whose platform most reflected my views.


Why donate to competing parties with competing agendas?

When you are developing a site like Park West, and you are seen to be a large-ish entity, you are moving into a neighbourhood where you are expected to look after people. Not just political parties. We donated to a riding school in Cherry Orchard. We contributed computers to a school in Ballyfermot. We seldom refused anyone.

Harcourt is in Nama now. Do you have regrets about that?

I think a lot of developers got carried away on wings of song. But I don’t think Harcourt was one of them. Pat Doherty and I looked at the figures being bandied about for the Ballsbridge site [purchased by Seán Dunne], for example, and we asked ourselves, have these people lost their minds? I’m no longer formally with Harcourt as a director. But as it happens, the company has reached an amicable arrangement with Nama that will stretch over a number of years. In other words, we were proven not to have been too injudicious.

Did you miss broadcasting in the time you were away from it?

I missed very little about it, to be honest. The Arts Show was something I had enjoyed doing very much. But I had done it for about 12 years and at a certain stage, you’re just repeating yourself. I presented Winning Streak for a long number of years too. But again, I thought to hell with it. It’s time to give it over to someone younger and fresher.

Now that you have returned to broadcasting, would you consider coming back to it full-time?

Haha. Absolutely not. My wife keeps asking me when I’m going to retire. If an interesting project comes along that does turn me on, so to speak, I will consider doing it. But at the moment RTÉ, as you know, is in a bit of a pickle. I’d be very much on the outside and I have no great ambition to get back in.

Masterpiece: Ireland’s Favourite Painting airs at 10.15pm on Tuesday, April 17th, on RTÉ One