Thursday 19 September 2019

Philip Ryan: 'Leo's mastermind turns into minister who's going missing'

As Fine Gael plans ahead, we're seeing less of Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy, writes Philip Ryan

Leo Varadkar with Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy as they officially open Phase One of the Dolphin House project in Dublinsenator. Photo:
Leo Varadkar with Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy as they officially open Phase One of the Dolphin House project in Dublinsenator. Photo:
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Not long ago, Eoghan Murphy was the darling of the Fine Gael parliamentary party. The political genius who masterminded Leo Varadkar's campaign to become Taoiseach ushered in a new era for Fine Gael members. He was every bit as important to the rebranding of the party in the aftermath of Enda Kenny's departure as Varadkar. Young, fit and full of ideas, Murphy, or ''Murph'' as his political pals like to call him, was very much part of the new-look Fine Gael team.

But in the coming weeks and months it is expected he will play a less visible role in the party. Yes, he's still got the ear of the Taoiseach and is held in good stead by those who matter in the party but it is felt by some of his senior colleagues that he should focus on the housing crisis. There will be fewer photoshoots of Murphy in hard hats and fewer radio interviews in which he tries to explain away the housing crisis.

It is worth remembering Murphy was one of the first people Varadkar approached when he decided to get serious about leading Fine Gael. For his loyalty, he was appointed director of elections for the campaign and was one of the few politicians who knew about the many and varying strands of the secretive operation. Thanks to a lot of Murphy's work behind the scenes, the contest was over before it started.

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Those close to Murphy also credit him with what Fine Gael saw as a victory in the recent Seanad by-election. The party's two preferred candidates - Fine Gael's Anthony Lawlor and a former president of the Ulster Farmers Union, Ian Marshall, saw off candidates from Fianna Fail thanks to some help from Sinn Fein. Impressed by Murphy's abilities, Fine Gael even appointed his director of elections, Alan Holmes, as the party's political director.

Murphy's own appointment as Minister for Housing is one that he might now regret. Simon Coveney, who was little over a year in the portfolio, wanted out as soon as possible after the Fine Gael leadership contest. Varadkar gave him his choice of cabinet positions and he choose the Department of Foreign Affairs. According to his Fine Gael colleagues, Murphy had his eye on this ministry and must have been disappointed when he was given the keys to the Department of Housing.

In hindsight, it was not much of a reward for the first-time Cabinet minister. But it was a ministry and no politician would turn down a ministry. Well, most wouldn't - Varadkar himself managed to talk himself out the Department of Health when Kenny was still running the show.

Murphy's two-and-a-half years in housing have been difficult, to say the least. It is a bad news department. House prices and the cost of rent are hitting record highs while the number of homeless people continues to increase, unabated by any solution thrown at the problem. From most accounts, he gets on very well with his officials and is diligent in how he goes about his business.

But the housing crisis is hurting that all-important image Varadkar and others care so much about. When a TD's constituency office phone rings, more often than not it is someone calling about housing. It could be a parent who can't find or afford university accommodation for their offspring or a family facing the threat of homelessness after their landlord increased their rent. There are many more examples.

Murphy is the political face of the housing crisis. He is the minister speaking on the news when the latest homeless figures are released or when the rent crisis hits a new low. It is Murphy's voice on the radio when bad news on housing is being announced. In true Fine Gael fashion, he is also forever launching initiatives and announcing action plans. You do not have to look hard to find photos of him in a hard hat unveiling a new project or pictures of him standing on a podium revealing his latest idea to encourage house building.

The first sign of Murphy's relegation was the appointment of the confidence and supply negotiating team. Given political prowess and his involvement in the original round of talks with Fianna Fail, some were surprised he was not involved in the renewal negotiations.

However, with that being said, and with image being everything for Fine Gael politicians, it would give a bad impression if the minister responsible for the housing crisis was to have time to dabble in other political issues.

This is not to take from the rest of the Fine Gael negotiating team which includes ministerial heavy hitters Simon Coveney, Paschal Donohoe and Regina Doherty along with Fine Gael parliamentary party chairman Martin Heydon. But Murphy is noticeable by his absence given his position in the Taoiseach's inner circle.

It has also been noted Murphy was not present for the launch of a number of housing initiatives in recent weeks. The minister did not attend an announcement on the regeneration of the O'Devaney Gardens site in Dublin City Centre. Instead, the Taoiseach and Paschal Donohoe did the media duties. Murphy was also deputised by Minister of State in the Department of Housing Damien English for another housing event in Ballymun, North Dublin.

However, Murphy was back in front of the cameras on Friday afternoon for an announcement on the redevelopment of the Dolphin House project with the Taoiseach.

Murphy's media output has certainly been curtailed in recent weeks. Naturally, Murphy's advisers try to play down any suggestion he is being sidelined and insist he is doing more media than ever. But in recent weeks this hasn't been the case.

"We need to move away from Eoghan explaining the housing crisis in his South Dublin accent - it's hurting us," a Fine Gael minister said.

Another interesting development last week was the announcement that Minister of State for Local Government and Electoral Reform John Paul Phelan would be Fine Gael's director of elections for next year's local elections.

Phelan is a good fit for the role given his portfolio and the fact he has an understanding of local politics from his time chasing councillors' votes as a senator. However, it is another key appointment which again Murphy seems to have been overlooked for.

Phelan, on the other hand, will have his reputation on the line as he works to win back the 105 seats Fine Gael lost in 2014. The talk in the senior ranks of Fine Gael also suggests Murphy will not be the party's director of elections once the general election is called.

Consideration is being given to appointing someone from outside the party to the key position. However, if they choose to appoint from within Fine Gael, the smart money is on Donohoe to be the front-of-house face for the campaign.

Murphy played a low-key role at Fine Gael's Ard Fheis this weekend but did take questions from the media and spoke during a session on housing.

Sources close to Murphy say he is currently not involved in any election planning and is focusing on his responsibilities in the Department of Housing.

This harks back to the advice given to Varadkar when he was an ambitious young minister - always be seen to focus on your departmental duties because the public do not like it when politicians are seen to be playing politics when there is work to be done. And there is certainly a lot of work to be done in the Department of Housing.

All this is not to say Murphy is no longer part of the Taoiseach's inner circle. As is his nature, Varadkar will canvass lots of opinions before taking most decisions. Murphy would have been one of those. It is well-known in Fine Gael that Murphy wanted to go to the country this year rather than next. This hasn't transpired and it is unlikely to do so with Christmas rapidly approaching. Varadkar may come to regret this.

When the starting pistol is sounded on the election, housing will be the central issue of the campaign. Fine Gael will then not be able to hide from the facts and figures that define the housing crisis even if they try to hide the Housing Minister.

Sunday Independent

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