Wednesday 15 August 2018

Obituary: Frank Murray

Distinguished civil servant who took on an onerous but crucial task, writes Liam Collins

TRUSTED: Frank Murray
TRUSTED: Frank Murray

Frank Murray, who died last weekend in Dublin aged 76, was a distinguished and low-key civil servant who worked his way up the ranks of the administration to become secretary-general to the Government from 1993 to 2000.

During his career, he served at a senior level in various governments from that of Liam Cosgrave in the early 1970s to Bertie Ahern in the late 1990s.

Mr Murray, who maintained a lifelong affinity with his native county Leitrim, lived in Foxrock, Dublin. He went on to become a director of Independent News & Media for a decade after his retirement. Up to the time of his death, he was also co-commissioner on the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains - an onerous task which involved establishing where victims 'disappeared' by the IRA during the Troubles were buried.

He was born on Main Street, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim on September 3, 1941. His father was the town taxi-driver and his mother ran a small sweet shop. He was educated locally and joined the civil service after school, working in the Land Commission before transferring to the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas in Leinster House.

When Liam Cosgrave was first elected Taoiseach in 1973, he and his party had been so long out of power that he was unfamiliar with many of the senior figures in the civil service and distrusted others. As with more senior ministerial appointments, Cosgrave was unpredictable in the choice of his 'kitchen cabinet' but because of his contact with Murray, who worked in the office dealing with Parliamentary Questions, he appointed him as his private secretary.

Although it raised eyebrows among more senior figures in the administration, it proved an inspired choice as it put the 32-year-old Murray on the first rung of the ladder that would lead to one of the most important jobs in Irish public administration.

Because the new Taoiseach was so aloof from his colleagues, refusing to give them his home telephone number, the only way Mr Cosgrave could be reached when not in his office was either through Frank Murray or the then secretary to the Government Dan O'Sullivan and his assistant Dermot Nally.

The three men also wrote his cabinet briefings on issues of the day, although Cosgrave would not always follow them or do what was expected. In his memoirs, Barry Desmond recalls how he went to Murray to see how Cosgrave intended to vote on the Contraceptive Bill in 1974 and "he assured me that he had received no negative intimations from Liam Cosgrave". Cosgrave then shocked everybody, including his private secretary, by voting against his own government's bill, helping to defeat it.

With the election of Jack Lynch as Taoiseach in 1977, Murray was appointed principal officer in the Northern Ireland and International Affairs division of the Department of the Taoiseach. In 1983 he was appointed assistant secretary general to the government and would have worked closely with Charlie Haughey and Garret FitzGerald, before being appointed secretary general in January, 1993 by Albert Reynolds.

The two men would have had a midlands affinity and Murray was among a small group of trusted advisers, along with Sean Duignan, Paddy Teahon and Tom Savage, who were with Reynolds on a Friday night in 1994 when the Beef Tribunal report was issued and the then Taoiseach decided to release a statement saying "I'm vindicated". Labour Party leader and partner in government, Dick Spring, unable to contact Reynolds, rang Murray to tell him of "the implications for government", threatening that he might pull out if this statement went ahead. It did and the government didn't fall, although this sowed the seeds of distrust that led to the government's premature end later that same year.

Following his retirement, Murray held a number of public service sinecures on the Top Level Appointments Committee, as Vice President of the Institute of Public Administration and independent reviewer of complaints for the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland.

Frank Murray was appointed a director of Independent News and Media (INM), then controlled by Sir Anthony O'Reilly, in August, 2003 in what was seen as a move to bolster the board's independence. He was one of only four board members to survive when James Osborne was ousted as chairman and was acting chairman at the meeting which appointed Leslie Buckley as chairman in August, 2012. He retired from the board the following year.

He had an interest in military history and served as a director of the cross-border Military Heritage Trust of Ireland and was a director of Concern Worldwide.

Frank Murray, who died on March 31, is survived by his wife Maureen and four of their five children. He was buried in Deans Grange on Friday last.

Sunday Independent

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