Tuesday 13 November 2018

Murphy's Law: Middle class rebel and suburban radical

Paul Murphy is unapologetic about the ugly antics of protesters at a now infamous rally in west Dublin. But who is this TD leading the charge against water charges?

Budget Day:
Paul Murphy,the newly elected Anti Austerity Alliance deputy for Dublin South-West with supporters on arrival for his first day at Leinster House yesterday.Pic Tom Burke 14/10/2014
Budget Day: Paul Murphy,the newly elected Anti Austerity Alliance deputy for Dublin South-West with supporters on arrival for his first day at Leinster House yesterday.Pic Tom Burke 14/10/2014
Joan Burton comes under attack.
Paul Murphy on the ground.
Paul Murphy, Anti-Austerity Alliance.
Paul Murphy as a student.
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

It should have been an occasion for celebration in Jobstown in Tallaght last Saturday. Students of the community education college, An Cosan, were dressed up in their finery for a graduation ceremony just before noon.

But when Liz Waters, CEO of the college, emerged in a procession with the students, alongside the Tanaiste Joan Burton, she was abused and spat at by a baying mob. Her necklace was broken and she said later: "I was frightened."

The chairman of An Cosan, Bill Roche, was also terrified by similar treatment. He was abused, shoved and jostled. He said he was so terrified, he could not sleep for two days.

Paul Murphy, an elected TD for the Anti Austerity Alliance (aka the Socialist Party), was in the middle of the protest demo later on, as it stopped Joan Burton's car from leaving the area after the ceremony. Witnesses reported an atmosphere of fear and menace as a small group protesters banged on the car.

At that point Murphy, as an elected politician for the area in a position of leadership, might have taken the opportunity to exercise good authority and bring a swift end to a potentially dangerous situation.

Instead, according to his critics, he behaved like a ''carpetbagging toytown revolutionary''.

Any politician with an ounce of political sensibility or sensitivity might have gone to greater lengths to dampen down a mob frenzy.

And did Murphy and his acolytes ponder whether a graduation ceremony was a suitable occasion for a menacing protest?

The 31-year-old activist from the right side of the tracks, who grew up in middle class Goatstown in South County Dublin, perhaps had a scant understanding of the importance of the event, as he stood there grandstanding with his loud hailer.

In her opposition days, it would have been hard to imagine Joan Burton taking part in a riotous demonstration at an adult education graduation.

As an adopted child with a working class background, who depended on scholarships for her education, the Tanaiste was perhaps more attuned to what such an occasion meant to the students involved.

Having been parachuted into the European Parliament as a substitute for his party colleague, Joe Higgins, in 2011, Murphy rode a wave of popular and understandable revulsion against water charges last month to win a Dail seat for the Anti Austerity Alliance in a by-election.

He does not live in the constituency, but in an apartment with his partner in the leafier environs of Ballinteer, closer to his childhood home in Goatstown. It is a convenient commute for a campaigner, who prefers to be seen as an activist than as a politician.

Joan Burton had Murphy in mind when she referred in the Dail on Wednesday to "ring-leaders who have no interest in solutions only fomenting despair and discontent - ring-leaders who incite, whip things up, and then, like cowards, put the megaphone back in the boot of the car and drive away".

Eamonn Maloney, the Labour TD for Dublin South West, was sickened by the small number of protesters who created trouble outside the graduation ceremony.

"Some of the protesters came in from outside," Mr Maloney told Weekend Review. "Unlike Paul Murphy, I actually live in Tallaght.

"There are 16,000 people living in Jobstown and there have been great efforts to create a positive image for the area. The events of Saturday did nothing to help that."

The Anti Austerity Alliance TD's own upbringing is a world away from Jobstown. His father Kieran, who died when he was a boy, was the chief executive of Mars in Ireland. Originally from Castlebar, Co Mayo, the Murphy family had links with Fine Gael.

His mother, Marie, is a former school teacher. His uncle is the recently-retired RTE newsreader, Michael Murphy.

Accounts of his childhood in Goatstown paint a picture that was far from austere, including a safari in Kenya and a skiing holiday. At secondary level, he attended fee-paying St Kilian's, the German school on Roebuck Road, before enrolling in the Institute of Education on Leeson Street, another private institution that specialises in gaining its students high grades in the Leaving Cert.

This expensive education helped Murphy get enough points to study law at UCD.

Murphy has said of his upbringing: "It was a very middle class childhood, which was privileged compared to that of many people in this country."

He could have joined a lucrative profession, but Murphy was set on a different course to that of his elder sister Emer, who is a banker, and his younger brother, Niall, a business consultant.

He attended his first protest at the age of 15, when he became captivated by the anti-capitalist movement.

It was perhaps a portent of things to come that this suburban rebel had a poster of the Battle of Seattle on his wall. This was the famous demo, where protesters battled police outside a World Trade Organisation event.

Murphy read the works of Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky before hooking up with the Socialist Party, a grouping that sprang out of the Militant Tendency, a cult-like Marxist group that was expelled from the Labour parties both in Britain and Ireland.

There are few enough glimpses into what life might be like in Murphy's version of socialist utopia, but Liverpool in the mid 1980s offers a hint of what we could expect.

In the early 1980s, the Militant faction in the British Labour Party, controlled Liverpool city council. They embarked on a mammoth spending spree, funded by borrowed money, and brought the city to the brink of bankruptcy, with redundancy notices issued to thousands of council employees.

Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, summed up the situation in a famous speech in 1985: "You end in the grotesque chaos of a... council hiring taxis to scuttle round a city, handing out redundancy notices to its own workers."

On the website of Murphy's party the Socialists, the Russian revolution of 1917 is described as "the greatest event in human history".

To its critics, however, the revolution enveloped part of the continent in a tyranny that was only matched in the 20th century in Europe by that of the Nazis - with summary executions, show trials, widespread poverty and even famine.

Of course, activists such as Murphy do not dwell on these unfortunate events, or outline any positive vision of the future in any kind of detail. Their rhetoric scarcely rises above the level of 1960's agitprop cliche.

For most his adult life, Murphy has just been a full-time activist.

Clearly, the life of a professional protester requires a certain level of physical fitness. Outside of politics, Murphy has said: "I run, I read, I go to the gym."

Outlining how he became politically involved, Murphy remarked in one interview: "I just became very confident that I'd see a socialist revolution in my lifetime."

He said after he was elected in last month's by-election: "At the end of the day, there are a lot of things more important to me than money. What I get from fighting for just causes alongside like-minded people is worth much more to me."

Murphy's antics in Tallaght may have grabbed attention for the suburban rebel, but there are doubts about whether it served the cause of the overall anti-water charges campaign.

It took the heat off the Government for a few days, and instead, some of the campaigners were put on the defensive.

Garrett Mullan, a former comrade of Murphy's in the Socialist Party, said: "Paul is affable and a good communicator, but I believe the way he handled the protest in Tallaght was a misjudgement.

"He should have distanced himself from some of the violent behaviour in the protest. If people are banging on a car, many people would see that as menacing rather than a peaceful protest."

Some of those vehemently opposed to water charges wonder whether the riotous scenes in Tallaght and elsewhere, and the Government concessions (memorably described as a "10-point U-turn"), will dilute the water protest movement and diminish its mass appeal.

For Murphy, at any rate, the protests will go on. He said after the Fine Gael/Labour climbdown this week: "People are no longer afraid of the Government. The Government is afraid of them.

"We have pushed them back, we have felt our own power and we can go further," he declared.

But it remains to be seen how far Murphy and Socialist Party colleagues can go. Left wing movements may be successful at organising demonstrations against a shambolic government tax, but after gaining electoral success in the past, they have had a tendency to fight amongst themselves and break up in disorder.

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