Eoghan Murphy: Influential figure who was still deemed a ‘rising prospect’

Resignation comes as a shock as few thought bruising spell in housing would be last time in cabinet

 Former minister for housing  Eoghan Murphy in 2019. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Former minister for housing Eoghan Murphy in 2019. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

A sudden resignation by a sitting TD from the Dáil is a rare event.

You could count the number who have stepped down in the past 20 years on the fingers of one hand. None will be as surprising as that of Eoghan Murphy, the 39-year old Fine Gael TD for Dublin Bay South who was still considered as a “rising prospect” even though he has already served as a senior minister.

There was context behind other sudden resignations. Ray Burke resigned because of the storm clouds of controversy around him. Martin Cullen had a health issue when he resigned more than a decade ago. George Lee resigned because he discovered soon after his byelection victory that life as a TD was not as he imagined it.

Murphy’s “bolt out of the blue” announcement on Tuesday morning was a shock. Sure, he had a bruising encounter as minister for housing during his three years in the job, and like others in this problematic portfolio, his reputation had not been enhanced.

Consequently, despite his political closeness to Leo Varadkar, he returned to the backbenches once the present Government was formed, with a role looking at future Fine Gael electoral strategy, policy and positioning, as well as acting as a link between the party and the organisation. None of his colleagues considered that as permanent, rather a temporary setback in a career that is inevitably cyclical.

Former minister Eoghan Murphy was one of Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar’s closest allies. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Former minister Eoghan Murphy was one of Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar’s closest allies. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Murphy, who grew up in Sandymount, is from a well-known Dublin family. His grandfather Russell Murphy was a well-known accountant who became notorious after his death when clients (including the broadcaster Gay Byrne) discovered their investment funds had disappeared. His father Henry is a retired senior counsel and author. His brothers have forged out successful careers in the arts. One, Cillian is a well-known TV and film actor (whose stage name is Kilian Scott); the other, Colin, is a playwright and journalist.

He was educated at the private St Michael’s College in Dublin before doing a degree in English and Philosophy in UCD. He also competed an MA in international relations in King’s College, London.

Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy with his brother Cillian (actor Killian Scott) at the RDS election count centre in Ballsbridge, Dublin last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy with his brother Cillian (actor Killian Scott) at the RDS election count centre in Ballsbridge, Dublin last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Murphy’s early career was international. He worked for the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, and also with the Department of Foreign Affairs for a period. Nuclear disarmament has remained an abiding interest for him as have general issues of defence. He was a speechwriter for another international organisation campaigning for disarmament before being elected to Dublin City Council in 2009.

As soon as his election to the Pembroke ward in 2009, Murphy was considered a strong prospect for the Dáil in a constituency which had a historically high Fine Gael vote. With the collapse of Fianna Fáil in 2011, he and Lucinda Creighton took two seats for the party in the four-seat constituency with Labour winning the other two.

Creighton, who had been one of those who opposed Enda Kenny in the 2010 leadership tussle, was appointed as minister of State for European affairs. Murphy, though new, marked himself out relatively early as an internal critic of the party.

One of his early forays as a parliamentarian was in the area of political reform. He published a pamphlet calling for Dáil reform.

While never an outspoken critic in the John Deasy mode, Murphy nevertheless did not shy from airing his views on deficiencies. He was a member of the so-called “five-a-side” group of young TDs (all elected in 2011) who met to discuss policy and reform. Their existence did not please the party hierarchy who saw them as audacious upstarts.

Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy celebrates his election in 2011. Photograph: Alan Betson
Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy celebrates his election in 2011. Photograph: Alan Betson

In 2014, he courted more controversy when he wrote an opinion piece for The Irish Times strongly criticising his own government’s handling of water charges and Irish Water.

He pointed out that legislation setting up this new utility company was approved by parliament after a three-hour debate because the Government used the whip system to ram it through the Dáil.

“As a proud member of Fine Gael, I make these arguments in the tradition of Garret FitzGerald and John Bruton. Fine Gael needs to commit immediately to loosening the grip that government holds on Dáil Éireann.”

His call for a free vote on some issues did not get any resonance with his own leadership.

A centrepiece of the 2011 coalition’s programme was a banking inquiry, which (politically) among other things would load the blame onto Fianna Fáil. But parliamentary inquiries in Ireland are very hamstrung and limited. Both Fianna Fáil taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen emerged from the process with their reputations somewhat rehabilitated.

Murphy was a member of the committee leading the inquiry which was a messy scenario. When the final draft report was presented, committee members considered it unusable. It was left to Murphy and to Labour senator Susan O’Keeffe (the two with writing experience) to pull a few all-night sessions in an effort to resuscitate it. Which they partially did.

Eoghan Murphy and Susan O’Keeffe woked closely together on the committee of inquiry into the banking crisis. Photograph: Eric Luke
Eoghan Murphy and Susan O’Keeffe woked closely together on the committee of inquiry into the banking crisis. Photograph: Eric Luke

By 2016, with Lucinda Creighton having left Fine Gael to establish Renua and having lost her seat, Murphy was now the senior Fine Gael TD in his constituency. He was asked to become part of the Fine Gael negotiating team for government. He became minister of State in the Department of Finance and was particularly interested in the technology and start-up areas.

Meanwhile, Kenny’s era was coming to an end. Since becoming a TD Murphy had championed Varadkar as a future leader and was his closest ally within the party. During the leadership battle with Simon Coveney, Murphy was the person who called most of the shots in the campaign. He was awarded with a full ministry, at the Department of Housing.

The portfolio was a double-edged sword. Housing had ground to a halt during the recession and now with a growing economy there was huge demand, for entry level homes and for social housing. The lack of supply put pressure on house prices and consequently on rents. Coveney had an ambitious grand plan, Rebuilding Ireland. Murphy instead focused on more discrete targets in each of the problem areas. And there were many: social housing, new homes, affordable houses, getting people off Housing Assistance Payments, rising homelessness, an excruciatingly slow planning and development process.

His tenure in housing was a difficult one. He came up with a number of new directions, including the setting up of the Land Development Agency. But the success or otherwise of such ideas could not be judged, given that many were not even off the ground by the time he left office. Another of his new ideas was co-living but the concept – always a little dubious in any instance – was not fully fleshed, or thought, out and led to considerable, damaging, blowback. . On Tuesday, he accepted the policy had been a mistake. During the time he faced two votes of no confidence, one in 2018, the other in December 2019. The fact that housing was such a dominant issue in last year’s general election in itself became a judgement on his time in housing.

Tall, sallow and always impeccably dressed, Murphy was portrayed (or lampooned by Oliver Callan) as one of the posh Fine Gael boys surrounding Varadkar. Of course, his background was posh but Murphy – like most Irish politicians – has a common touch and many of his closest friends in the Dáil were rural TDs.

While he did not get a ministry in this Coalition, it was never taken for a moment that he had hit the buffers in his own political career after only a decade in the Dáil. But it became clear on Tuesday that he himself no longer had the same appetite for the chase.