Murphy’s ‘posh boy’ image hurting FG amid worsening homeless crisis
Minister must bear some degree of responsibility for the slow rate of house-building
Eoghan Murphy Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. Photograph: Alan Betson
At the beginning of the summer, when Sinn Féin threatened a motion of no confidence in Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy, the Taoiseach made clear to Fianna Fáil that failure to back his appointee meant a general election.
Privately and publicly, Leo Varadkar’s support was unwavering for the man who was more important to his campaign for the leadership of Fine Gael than anyone else.
But the political fire directed at Murphy has only intensified since. The latest charge laid at him – and at his boss, by proxy – is that their “posh boy” image is hurting Fine Gael, projecting an image of entitlement and aloofness from the problems of ordinary people.
The posh boy characterisation is self-evidently true; Murphy is the product of a well-off, middle class household in Dublin 4, with a tradition in the law. His father Henry is a senior counsel, his uncle Frank was a Supreme Court judge.
He has the ease and confidence that is often the product of an expensive education, though he displays a greater self-awareness of it than many of his contemporaries.
And yet the posh boy stuff is also a sort of reverse snobbery. If Murphy came from a working-class family and environment, nobody would dare say the sort of things about his background influencing his political choices. But he’s not, and they do.
This stuff is dangerous, not just to Murphy and his boss, but to Fine Gael, and they know it. Like all effective political attacks, it’s plausible, pithy and sticky.
It’s hard to dispute what Murphy said when he told Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ radio earlier this week that if people think the problem with the housing crisis is that he’s “a posh boy from Dublin 4, then they’re missing the point”.
But privately, Murphy has acknowledged the attacks are wounding. He tells interviewers the Opposition have focused their attention on him personally because they have no policy alternative, but he concedes to close colleagues that the political danger to him has increased in recent months.
Even Murphy’s allies concede that the homelessness issue is becoming dangerously personalised for him.
No minister can last if they become a lightning rod for public and media criticism of their government, or an incarnation of its failures.
Partly that’s because of the posh boy thing. Partly it is because he has been less adept than his predecessor Simon Coveney in keeping close to the many vocal interest groups and charities in the area – though he has quietly visited shelters, served breakfasts, regularly seen the services at first hand.
But mainly it’s because the housing and homelessness crisis keeps getting worse.
The Government characterises the principal problem as one of supply, both in the public and private sector. But despite apparently unlimited money, housing construction remains painfully slow. “If it was a question of money, we would just throw more money at it,” says one Government source.
“Eoghan Murphy is a very hardworking guy, he’s very smart,” Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin told The Irish Times Inside Politics podcast on Wednesday.
“I happen to like him personally. But a year in, I have to say that I think he is failing in his ministerial responsibility and I think when that’s the case you have to ask yourself whether that person is fit for the job.”
This is a minority Government, a source close to Murphy notes. “If the Opposition had a better big idea, they could get it through the Dáil. They don’t, so they keep the criticism personal.”
Harder to shrug off are the criticisms of the homeless charities and activists, who have no political interest in damaging or dumping Murphy.
Some of them regard him as arrogant and out of touch, with little feel for the reality of the crisis in people’s lives. But more seriously, most of them say Government policies are simply not working.
In response to yesterday’s homelessness figures, Barnardos said Murphy’s claims that Government strategy is delivering are “patently” not true. “The Government must build more social housing immediately and stem the flow of families into homelessness by enforcing stronger rent controls and providing greater protection for tenants,” the charity said.
But building more social housing – like all building – takes time. It takes time to plan, procure and proceed. It takes time to complete.
And the mechanics of government, and of local authorities, move especially slowly on housing.
For that, Murphy must bear some degree of responsibility. He is right that the construction numbers are moving in the right direction. But they are not moving quickly enough to make a sufficient difference in the present, and politics lives urgently and impatiently in the present.