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Friday 17 November 2017

Reluctant rebel who dares to ask questions

Outspoken FG TD Eoghan Murphy brings a fresh dimension to politics, writes Joyce Fegan

THE first time 30-year-old Fine Gael TD Eoghan Murphy stepped inside Leinster House, he was wearing a pair of jeans and a T-shirt.

It was the evening of February 27, 2011, two days after the general election. He was having a quick look around his new office. "The first person I bumped into was Michael Noonan," he said. Noonan asked him whose campaign he'd been working on, and his response came: "Actually, my own." Alan Shatter and Phil Hogan then came on the scene and finally Enda Kenny emerged.

"The four of them proceeded to speak about strategy and I just stood there in silence, thinking, 'Jesus this is a bit surreal.' Eighteen months previous to that I wasn't elected to anything, and all of a sudden I'm standing with the future Taoiseach and Minister for Finance and they're talking about what the programme for government is going to be for the next five years."

TD Eoghan Murphy has come to national attention in recent weeks. He was one of the eight TDs -- the others were Sean Conlan, Paul Connaughton, Pat Deering, Brendan Griffin, Noel Harrington, Sean Kyne, and Anthony Lawlor -- who wrote a letter to the Irish Examiner criticising points of policy in the Croke Park Agreement.

"There's a group of us in there who are very concerned about issues on policy stuff, but as a group of eight or 10 it wasn't about getting attention," he explained.

Nor was it about "being a jittery high baby or about being a rebel", it was about having an "opinion on a point of policy and feeling that that must be expressed".

People saw their move as a break in the Government ranks. But politicians write opinion pieces for papers all the time, he says.

It's philosophical to him. It's about change and not being complicit via silence. The young TD values open debate and critical thinking and hopes that in a few years their action will not be seen as a rebellious act, but more the "norm".

He's young and fresh and brings a new dimension to Irish political life. But where did he come from?

"We were the class of 2000 -- we were told we could do anything we wanted," he said. Murphy went to study English and Philosophy in UCD. He decided to take a year out and went travelling in what would have been his third year in Belfield. The year changed him, he said. He went to Thailand to teach English and was struck with illness twice. On one occasion, as he was being wheeled into the operating theatre of a military hospital to have his appendix out, a dog walked in beside him. He didn't receive the proper care and had to return home.

"I was back in Dublin, back in my parents' house, assuming everyone must think I'm a total loser," he said.

"I lost a lot of weight, I was still quite sick and had confidence issues and stuff."

His father urged him not to waste the year and to get back out there. The TD packed his bags and went off travelling by himself. He worked in hostels and met lots of people whose conversations circled around one topic: war. It was the year Afghanistan had been invaded and the war in Iraq was going on, and he found himself not having the ability or knowledge to partake in these conversations even though he desperately wanted to.

"I came home with a better idea of myself and what I wanted to do," Murphy said. He decided to work hard for his final year, get a decent degree and then study international politics in King's College London. This was his big turning point. He studied diplomacy as a primary elective, and also weapons proliferation. By the time the year was out, there were two offers on the table. He could accept an offer of a scholarship in the US or an unpaid internship with an NGO in London. Murphy elected to stay in London and gain experience in the world of arms control.

After this internship he moved on to another in the United Nations. "We're told when we go that we don't get hired off intern programmes -- and they don't, but I wanted to be the person to break that." And he was. Soon after that he was writing speeches for the UN and was asked to come home and work for the Department of Foreign Affairs. Murphy was just 24.

After this came a job in the UN in Vienna. "This was a grade way above me. My boss called me in and told me that I was 15 years too young for the job and that he'd been warned not to hire someone so inexperienced."

Vienna was filled with days of working with people who were at the top of their game, who had travelled the world in their diplomatic corps, and working on "some of the most important issues on the planet", remembers Murphy. In spite of the highly pressurised environment, one eye always kept focused on home.

As Murphy was writing speeches for others, he started to think: "I'd like to be giving speeches." Stephen, Eoghan's older brother, received an email from him in the beginning of 2008. "Hey, do you know what I've been thinking about for the last couple of months? Getting involved in politics. What do you think?"

Stephen got on to the only person they knew who was involved in politics, a friend who was a member of a local branch of Fine Gael. "Is he mad?" came the response.

After a Six-Nations game in London, Murphy spotted Enda Kenny in Jury's in Kensington. Initially, too shy to approach him, the same brother urged him to go up to Kenny. Following on from this meeting Eoghan and Enda met in Dublin for coffee a few weeks later. After some consideration, Eoghan joined Fine Gael in the summer of 2008.

He'd gone from a senior position in the UN to being a nobody in the constituency of Dublin South-East. He wasn't a member of any political dynasty; no uncle, no father and no great-grandfather had previously flown a flag. There was no record of community work belonging to him. How would he ever get on the ticket? Armed with some friends and family, some fliers and a few maps, Eoghan Murphy began knocking on doors in Ranelagh. With 100 days to go to the local elections of June 2009, he found his name on the ticket.

After becoming a councillor, he and his supporters started thinking: "If we can do this, then let's see if we can go for the Dail." By the time Cowen's government fell Murphy had started to make an impact, but it wasn't until six weeks before the general election that he found his name on this ticket. He was 29.

What was it like the day the third-youngest politician was elected to the 31st Dail?

"It was crazy, surreal, I was nervous as hell. Some of the boxes had been opened early and I was with two of my brothers out having breakfast. One of them got a call and it was clear I was going to get a seat. He gave me the phone and said: 'Look, you did it.' Mates had come home from London for the count to support me; we all went down to the count centre and waited for the 'eliminate, eliminate, eliminate'. And then eventually at one in the morning it was called."

The media spotlight that focused on TD Eoghan Murphy in recent weeks was probably a fair a reflection of the man. He spoke out. He objected to policy. And even in the media's reaction to it, with which he was "disappointed", we are able to see the mature thought process in this relatively young political brain. "There were those who went out to attack us, not the opinions, but to attack us for having an opinion. It was a case of, 'How dare you think differently? How dare you have a different opinion? How dare you ask a question?'"

The incident made people wonder how much freedom TDs had within their party, within the Government. Murphy's take is that you have as much freedom as you want, it just "depends on what the repercussions are".

With change afoot -- much-needed change -- in systems and services and culture, Murphy is playing his part. He questions simple things like why only one bill is debated on a Friday and why you have to apply two days before you ask a question in the Dail.

It was never about being "anti-Enda" or anything "simplistic" like that, in fact he describes the Taoiseach as "an inspiring leader" and himself as Fine Gael to the "core", but approaching the summer of 2012 he said he "felt really down". He found himself wondering if he had a role to play -- was he living up to the hopes of the electorate or was he just there to "push a green button and be a backbencher in a large government"? He took the summer to have a long hard think, and came back believing that if he was really going to make a difference and get the most out of it he had to do it a bit "differently". Murphy says he doesn't want to look back in 20 years and think: "Why didn't I say something? Why didn't I stand up and say 'this is wrong' or 'let's look at this again'?"

In any professional environment the newbie is expected to keep pushing those green buttons and maintain the status quo: put in the time, and await promotion.

But not Eoghan.

Sunday Independent

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