Political visionary or ‘divorced from reality’ – Eoghan Murphy exits the Irish political scene

Dermot Carmody

April 27th this year saw the surprise resignation from Dail Eireann of Fine Gael TD for Dublin Bay South and former Minister For Housing, Eoghan Murphy. Not least as a result of holding the latter post, Murphy evoked a wide range of responses from colleagues and voters. To his detractors he was the face of perceived failure on the part of the government to step up to the mark and deal with the severe issue of housing and homelessness. The view of those opposed to, or at least not impressed with Murphy, tallied with his portrayal as a “posh” D4 boy, one of Leo’s acolytes, with a sense of entitlement and little connection to the type of people whose dire situations he was charged with improving. His characterisation by Oliver Callan on the satirical radio show on RTÉ, “Callan’s Kicks” neatly typifies this view of the man.

Yet from the time he ran as a sitting councillor in 2011 for the old constituency of Dublin South East, to his last Dail electoral showing in the 2020 General Election, Eoghan Murphy’s first preference vote was strong and held up well despite the negative sentiment generated by his tenure as housing minister. He stood successfully in three General Elections and maintained a share of the first preference vote at around 16% in each case. This was enough to be second only to Lucinda Creighton in 2011 and to top the poll of first preferences in the newly reformed constituency Dublin Bay South in 2016. He dropped to third, narrowly behind Sinn Fein’s Chris Andrews in second and Eamon Ryan’s thumping 22% in first, but his vote held up despite suffering from adverse opinion about his time in Housing.

A native of Sandymount, Eoghan Murphy was born in 1982. His father is a retired barrister and novelist, and his grandfather, Russell Murphy, was an accountant who achieved unfortunate wider fame after his death when it became apparent that funds entrusted to him for investment, notably by the late Gay Byrne, had disappeared. His brother Cillian is an actor (going by the stage name Killian Scott). Murphy was educated at Star Of The Sea National School, then St Michael’s College. He attended UCD, from where he got a BA in English and Philosophy and then King’s College London, where he completed an MA in International Studies.

Murphy was an intern in the office of British Labour MP Jane Griffiths for a time but his early career centred around International Relations, and specifically Disarmament. He worked for the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva. He was a speechwriter for the Geneva-based Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization before he was elected to Dublin City Council in 2009. Resigning his Dail seat in April, he stated his aim to once again pursue a career in the area of International Relations.

Murphy had met with Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny in Jury’s Hotel after a rugby match in 2008, and Kenny had encouraged him to keep in touch. Murphy joined Fine Gael that year and ran successfully in the Pembroke ward for the party in the 2009 local elections. Two years later he won the second seat for Fine Gael in Dublin South East when the party surged to 77 seats in the 2011 General Election.

With his constituency colleague Lucinda Creighton on the front bench, Murphy was an active backbencher and sometimes critic of his own party. He was a member of a loose affiliation of Fine Gael TDs, the five-a-side group, who were critical of the pace of austerity policies and of reform. He wrote an op-ed piece in The Irish Times bemoaning the constraints of the party whip system on oversight of government legislation in the context of the setting up of Irish Water.

Murphy served on the Public Accounts Committee and the Banking Inquiry, helping to rescue the latter when it threatened to collapse entirely. Having topped the poll in Dublin Bay South in the 2016 General Election, he was involved in negotiations for formation of a government and was made a Minister of State at the Department of Finance by Enda Kenny.

The following year Murphy became associated with the campaign to replace Kenny as Fine Gael leader and eventually ran Leo Varadker’s election campaign for leadership of the party. When Varadker became leader and Taoiseach, Murphy was rewarded with a ministerial post, that of Minister for Housing.

Inevitably that portfolio was a tainted chalice and made Murphy the target for widespread anger at government housing policy specifically, and the notion of his party as divorced from the reality of the lives of many of those they represented in general. Speaking after his recent resignation of his seat, Murphy mentioned the amount of abuse received, notably through social media, as a result of this.

Though he did not present this as the main reason for his resignation, it seems to have had an effect on him and must have contributed to his decision to turn again to a career in International Relations. In addition, following the formation of the present FF/FG coalition, Murphy was left without a place at cabinet (which he says was by his request). This was probably seen by many in Fine Gael and in politics as a temporary hiatus in Eoghan Murphy’s political career, but his decision to cut loose from Irish politics and engage again in International Affairs chimes with what he said in an interview in 2014 that he was “not interested in hanging around for 20 years” in politics. Perhaps his assertion in his interview on RTÉ Radio with Claire Byrne following his resignation that he felt he had both made a positive effort in Housing but that he had failed to solve the problem suggests a genuine epitaph and a genuine political ending.