Friday 15 November 2019

Murphy welcomed to big leagues by being thrown in to deep end straight away

Eoghan Murphy. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Eoghan Murphy. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

There's a theory that life is 10pc what happens to us and 90pc how we react to it. The same could be said of politics, where 'damage limitation' is often the order of the day.

When newly minted Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy got in his car and headed off to Drogheda on Tuesday, he set about trying to manage a situation that had been festering for four days.

It's a decades old rule of thumb for politicians that they should be seen "on the ground" in a time of crisis.

Enda Kenny suffered a major backlash when he was slow to appear during the floods of Christmas 2015 while former Green Party leader John Gormley was dubbed the 'Minister for Snow' after the government's inept attempts to reassure the public during the big freeze of 2010.

So with his sleeves rolled up (Justin Trudeau-style), Mr Murphy went to see what the problem was.

A burst pipe sounds predictable enough in a country where water charges were abandoned on the back of angry protests and a large-scale boycott.

A quick scan of the utility's Twitter feed shows that pipes burst most days but generally are fixed within 24 hours.

Government figures, including the minister, have pointed out that Irish Water was set up for exactly this type of situation.

But in the words of Mr Murphy, this is "the biggest crisis that Irish Water has faced".

At the same time, officials from Irish Water have been warning a similar situation could develop anywhere in the country. It's not a scare tactic. Around 10pc of our very disparate piping network is at risk of bursting. It could be you buying bottled water to flush down the toilet tomorrow.

Of course this is a debate we should have had before water charges were introduced, and by the time efforts were made to inform people of our Victorian and asbestos-ridden system they were drowned out by the pied piper of protest Paul Murphy.

Read More: Fianna Fáil acted 'shamelessly', says Labour as war of words boils over

Sinn Féin danced to his tune and Fianna Fáil got lost in a flood of inexplicable U-turns that saw its 2016 election manifesto promise to abolish Irish Water because it had "failed to achieve basic public legitimacy".

So now Eoghan Murphy must try to do the impossible: convince people that Irish Water is a nimble, efficient public body.

The 35-year-old is set for a steep learning curve, one that his Cabinet colleague in health Simon Harris has sometimes struggled with over the past year.

The public, and indeed the media, needs a 'fall guy'. Somebody to focus their ire on in times of hardship.

By taking over the portfolio that carries both housing and water, Mr Murphy will be in the firing line more often than not.

He will need to come up with better lines than: "I am very sorry for all of the people who have experienced these severe water shortages."

The Dublin Bay South TD also argued the lack of communication with householders added to the stress and anger being felt over the water shortage. This in itself is unforgivable in an era of 24-hour news and social media.

It seems even the minister didn't become aware of the seriousness of the situation until Sunday - two days after the pipe burst.

"Since then I and my officials have been working with Irish Water to make sure that everything that needs to be done is being done," he said.

The tankers have rolled in and the Defence Forces belatedly called upon to help.

But all sides need now to look at the bigger picture. Later this year almost one million households will have water charges refunded at a cost of €178m.

Simultaneously all parties in the Dáil will be calling for increased spending on water infrastructure.

Nobody in Leinster House has a leg to stand on when it comes to this issue - but it now falls on Eoghan Murphy to respond and deliver.

Welcome to the big leagues, minister.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section