Wednesday 29 January 2020

Byrne offers Murphy a wake-up call no almond latte could provide

Catherine Byrne and Eoghan Murphy
Catherine Byrne and Eoghan Murphy

Laura Larkin

Catherine Byrne was once described as "not a typical Fine Gaeler" and it's safe to say, for the most part, that still stands.

Byrne, the daughter of a working-class and politically engaged family, left school without any State exams and entered politics via grassroots activism in her local community.

Fine Gael may have Noel Rock holding fort in Ballymun, but the party is not exactly brimming with working-class TDs.

And that - for all the navel-gazing about Fine Gael's "posh boy" image - still matters.

If a government party is largely hearing from one section of society, despite their best efforts, then dissenting voices like Byrne's are important.

While she emerged as something of an unlikely rogue this week, Byrne has form when it comes to speaking her mind against the party.

Murphy emerges from his sea dip. Photo: Frank McGrath
Murphy emerges from his sea dip. Photo: Frank McGrath

Her interruption at this week's carefully crafted (aren't they all) announcement of ambitious plans to build 470 houses in Inchicore was embarrassing for her younger colleague, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy. She denounced the plans as "the wrong decision at the wrong time".

Despite protesting that she had not seen the plans, it is understood she was well-briefed ahead of the event. But her message, and its delivery, were pointed - it was a public statement that, no matter the consequences for Murphy or Fine Gael, she was sticking to her guns.

Inchicore and the issues that people living there want to see addressed in full, according to Byrne, are myriad: a shortage of public facilities but an abundance of fast-food restaurants; too many vacant units; and a persistence of anti-social behaviour.

The picture is a stark contrast with Murphy's own largely affluent southside constituency.

But Murphy, for one, seems to have no qualms about feeding into an image of Fine Gael which speaks to a very select grouping. Despite holding one of the most contentious portfolios, he crafts an image that at times appears almost like a parody.

He has drawn ire for joking about cows producing almond milk for his lattes and for recent images of himself after a dip in the sea in his pink swimming trunks. Most recently he was pictured at an event promoting the annual Electric Picnic charity cycle - a worthy cause, yes, but still wide of the mark.

Everyone is entitled to a private life but using the same social media accounts to promote measures to tackle the crisis while also using it to showcase his trendiness is jarring; almost 10,000 people are living in emergency accommodation. Rents threaten to force more into the same position and house prices continue to rise.

Meanwhile, the Government seems to be flailing at the best response to tackle the housing crisis. This week it was accused of standing over laws that allow a property investor to capitalise on a exemption in the law designed to protect tenants, and questions linger over whether they have a handle on the true extent of the housing crisis.

This week Leo Varadkar defended a State-backed investor who used an exemption to introduce a 6pc rent increase in a rent pressure zone where hikes are largely capped at 4pc, saying the landlord was bringing homes to the market for rent at a time when they were needed.

The message appears to be that we have to adopt a wait-and-see approach; the measures are there and they need to be allowed time to work, the Government says.

That's cold comfort for people living week to week worrying about rent - people who would view an almond latte and a trip to Electric Picnic as indulgences they simply cannot afford.

Irish Independent

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