Monday 10 December 2018

Political grudges stalling action on housing crisis

The breakdown in relations between FG's Eoghan Murphy and FF's Darragh O'Brien could affect an election

Sinn Fein housing spokesman Eoin O Broin marked Eoghan Murphy’s first year as Minister for Housing with a mobile billboard highlighting the department’s failings. Photo: PA
Sinn Fein housing spokesman Eoin O Broin marked Eoghan Murphy’s first year as Minister for Housing with a mobile billboard highlighting the department’s failings. Photo: PA
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

When Darragh O'Brien's mother heard her son had featured on the front page of the Sunday Independent days after being appointed Fianna Fail's spokesperson on housing, her reaction was: "Oh God, what has he done?" But Mrs O'Brien needn't have worried.

O'Brien had just been substituted on to the political pitch for his colleague Barry Cowen and went in on Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy with a bruising tackle. O'Brien said Murphy was "too elitist and cosseted" to fully understand a housing crisis which has resulted in thousands of families forced to seek the services of homeless agencies while even more people are priced out of the property market.

The comments went down well in Fianna Fail, especially among grassroots members anxious to see senior TDs give Fine Gael a kicking. Murphy reacted by saying his Fianna Fail counterpart's remarks were the most "useless" contribution on the housing crisis he had heard. Fine Gael sources also privately noted O'Brien is based in the upmarket coastal town of Malahide in Dublin and has a keen interest in cricket.

Prior to the comments, the two TDs had enjoyed a cordial first meeting following O'Brien's appointment to the portfolio in the second week of April.

Murphy committed to organising a briefing with officials for O'Brien and the pair had agreed to meet again in the coming weeks. O'Brien and his housing team took up the offer and tweeted a picture ahead of their meeting with housing officials. It was all going swimmingly.

But O'Brien's early-game shoulder charge on Murphy put an end to that. Since then, the two politicians - who are responsible for resolving the housing shortage - have not spoken. There have been no coffee mornings in the Custom House in Dublin city centre, where the pair could discuss potential policy decisions aimed at resolving the massive shortfall in new builds for people seeking homes.

There have been no phone calls or text messages discussing the legislation which might free up more houses for the homeless or first-time buyers. In fact, there have been no conversations at all.

Occasionally, the two politicians have bumped heads in the Dail or at housing committee meetings.

O'Brien has fired in a raft of emails to the minister's office under the terms of the confidence and supply agreement, which have called for urgent action on various housing-related issues.

He has written to the minister about a Fianna Fail proposal to use credit union funding to build new homes. The most recent correspondence related to the row over how homelessness figures are calculated.

O'Brien believes Murphy isn't able to take criticism, which is part and parcel of the job of being a senior politician.

"He doesn't seem to be able to take any type of criticism, that's part of the job and he doesn't seem to be up to it," a Fianna Fail source said. Sources close to the minister said Murphy specifically told O'Brien at their one and only meeting that they could have good working relationship as long he "played the ball and not the man".

The "elitist, cosseted" comments clearly rankled with Murphy. It was personal and not policy.

Murphy and Barry Cowen, while he was Fianna Fail housing spokesman, enjoyed a good working relationship. There were weekly phone calls and text messages. Murphy went out of his way to run Government policy decisions by his opposite number. However, near the end of his tenure as Fianna Fail housing spokesperson, Cowen decided to break ties with Murphy and focus on bringing his party's message to the public.

At the start of the year, Cowen kicked off a housing roadshow which saw him travel the country outlining the Fianna Fail's proposal to resolve the housing crisis. Not long after the tour began, he was replaced by O'Brien.

O'Brien hasn't kept this going. Instead, he is reading into his brief and making tweaks to the party's housing policy, which focuses on the State building homes needed to deal with the shortage.

In Fine Gael, senior politicians believe O'Brien has taken a less prominent role than his predecessor. One senior minister said the current battle is between Sinn Fein housing spokesman Eoin O Broin and Murphy. It also suits Leo Varadkar for the political discourse to be focused on Fine Gael and Sinn Fein as it isolates Fianna Fail.

However, it similarly suits Fianna Fail to increase tensions with Fine Gael as an election looms.

Last week, O Broin decided to 'play the man not the ball' by unveiling a billboard attacking Murphy's record on housing. The stunt saw a less than flattering poster of Murphy driven around Dublin city centre by a public relations agency. O Broin followed this with a round of radio and television interviews. He insisted he has no confidence in Murphy's handling of the housing crisis and said Sinn Fein was considering a motion of no confidence in the minister.

As of going to print, no such motion has been tabled and with the Dail recess fast approaching, Sinn Fein is running out of time to force a vote on the minister's record.

Even if it does, it is highly unlikely Fianna Fail will risk collapsing the confidence and supply arrangement by voting against Murphy. Fianna Fail is more likely to cash in on a no-confidence motion and force Fine Gael into budget concessions in return for Murphy's survival.

However, the deteriorating relationship between Murphy and O'Brien might make this difficult. O'Brien has a certain clout in Fianna Fail and if he won't back Murphy in a confidence motion, it could become party policy. Other Fine Gael ministers swear by a good working relationship with their minority government partners. "If things kick off, they are less likely to go hard on you if you've worked closely with them on other issues," one minister said.

Some ministers go out of their way to make friendly with their Fianna Fail counterparts. Superficial as the relationships might be, they can prove beneficial in times of need.

Almost certainly housing will be the focus of the next general election, whenever it may be. The smart money is still on November but there is speculation about a pre-budget September vote based on the need for stability ahead of Brexit. Either way, Murphy's performance will be central to the outcome. Arguably, Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail have as much say over when an election takes place as Fine Gael.

But if Fine Gael wants to dictate when a vote takes place, it will be necessary for the party to have a working of relationship with Fianna Fail. There is also the not-so-small issue of public interest and the effect the housing crisis is having on the public. Fianna Fail does have significant say on the Budget. So Murphy might have to swallow his pride and extend an olive branch to O'Brien in the coming months or their personal animosity might risk the future of the Government.

Sunday Independent

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