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Catherine Murphy interview: 'This government has got away with murder because of Brexit'

The Social Democrats co-leader spoke to us about commuter gridlock and her party’s view on working with Labour.

Murphy at Hazelhatch station in Celbridge.
Murphy at Hazelhatch station in Celbridge.
Image: TheJournal.ie

WHILE PERHAPS A useful shorthand, the term ‘commuter belt’ also seems vaguely insulting.

It reduces people and their homes down to their proximity to their place of work, something which clearly shouldn’t be the case.

But if applies anywhere, north Kildare perhaps can’t deny it as a label, having seen some of the biggest population growth in Ireland in recent years.

The area is also the base of operations for Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy TD.

Murphy’s constituency office is in Leixlip but she speaks to TheJournal.ie at a packed car park at the Hazelhatch train station in nearby Celbridge.

The station may be the nearest stop for many on the way to Dublin but it’s still a good 30 minutes’ walk from the town itself, hence the large car park. 

Murphy agrees that calling somewhere a ‘commuter town’ may be somewhat reductive, but says that it at least references one of the major concerns of people living in the area.

“You have to acknowledge that it’s there but also that these are people’s communities and people’s homes,” she says.

“They’re not economic units, they’re people, you know, and they tend to be, in some respects, seen as economic units.

We’ve had population growth, but we haven’t had the kind of investment in the parallel things you need, you’re playing catch up the whole time. You’ll have typically the highest class sizes in the country in places like this, because the distribution of teaching posts is based on historical models.

“This won’t be unique to north Kildare, you could say it’s typical, Fingal is the most rapidly developing area in the country,” she adds.

And so you’ll see the same pattern there, and you see the same pattern on the fringe of Galway, on the fringe of Cork. So they’re each unacknowledged regions, if you like.

Only a handful of people pass Murphy in the mid-morning sun, with all of the commuters having come through a few hours earlier. She gets a ‘keep up the good work’ from one.

Seven Dublin-bound trains come through in the morning and eight return the opposite direction in the evening. They use the Phoenix Park tunnel, reopened to commuter trains three years ago now.

Image from iOS (5) The packed car park in the station.

Murphy says the system isn’t fit for purpose and that the mothballed Dart Underground plan would have been the “missing piece” to relieve rail capacity issues.

“There’s a lot of railway traffic. And there’s going to be big investment in electrifying this line into Heuston,” she says, gesturing to the platform.

Now the Phoenix Park tunnel is kind of a Victorian tunnel. And it’s great it’s being used, but it’s not the answer. You have all these people going in, then you have them getting on to the Luas but you need that capacity on the Luas for something else.

Part of the Social Democrats’ manifesto ahead of the recent local elections was to see spending on public transport being equal or greater to spending on roads.

It also sought 10% of the transport budget to be set aside for cycling infrastructure, increasing to 20% in the medium term.

Climate issues

Murphy says that “owning a car is expensive” and the goal must be a situation where people can choose not to have one.

She agrees that attitudes are changing around climate issues and says this was clear on the doorsteps back in May.

“I know canvassing can annoy people at times. But in actual fact, it’s very useful to get that whole of community response that you get during a canvass, because you kind of get an idea what the trends are: what people are concerned about.

And they are concerned about the future from a range of perspectives. And it’s not only one generation that’s concerned about it, increasingly you’re seeing an older generation using the younger generation as a reference point.

Image from iOS (6) There are two charge points at the station, one is currently out of service. Source: Thejournal.ie

Murphy says she sees three main things for politicians to address when it comes to climate action: transport, housing/construction and agriculture.

On addressing the housing crisis, she says it’s about more than just social housing.

Affordability is the critical issue, affordability. We’re always going to have a mix of housing. But you also have to have an ability for people to buy, or to buy even part of the equity in their home. And essentially, you can’t have people living such precarious lives as they’ve been living.

She cites “routine” cases of being asked for help in finding a school place for a child after the family have been forced to move.

“They happen as a consequence of lack of security of tenure, the lack of security of housing provision and it’s one of the areas that you’ll find that is cross-generational in terms of concern.”

Resentment

Murphy says there’s bubbling anger about government policy not just on housing but on “a list” of issues. She says it’s being somewhat “masked” by Brexit but would come out during an election campaign.

This is a very poor government, it’s got away with murder because Brexit is a curtain that’s hiding a lot of the discontent, and the discontent is around, you know. The whole of issues like housing, like climate, like healthcare, like the Public Services Card, like broadband, you could write a list. And really, essentially, it (Brexit) has masked the other issues. 

4158 Social Democrats_90573750 Shortall and Murphy launching their party manifesto in June. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The SocDems won 19 local council seats in May having had six councillors going in. Those councillors didn’t win under the party banner five years previously, with the party only forming in 2015.

Murphy says they were very pleased with the result, having targeted 20 seats. She adds they could have had more but lost out in some competitive wards where the Green Party performed strongly.

“They did extraordinarily well,” Murphy says of the Greens. “And as I say, good luck to them.”

Asked how her party can woo voters who share concerns about green issues, the former independent TD says she has been producing environmental policies for years.

In 2013, I produced climate legislation and in actual fact, there were no Greens in the Dáil at the time when that happened. They just got dumped out because they’d been in government and that may well have been unfortunate timing for them.

Election time

Murphy and her co-leader Róisín Shortall are the only SocDem TDs after party co-founder Stephen Donnelly first left the party and later joined Fianna Fáil.

Donnelly was reported to have been more amenable to supporting a government in the post-2016 election period and it’s a question that’s likely to come up again for the party when the next general election does happen. Particularly if the party does manage to increase its share of Dáil seats.

Other opposition party leaders Mary Lou McDonald, Brendan Howlin and Eamon Ryan have all spoken to TheJournal.ie recently about whether they’d consider being part of a future coalition government.

What of the Social Democrats?

“Well, the very first thing is that our approach to government is that we’ll be going into a general election as an independent political party, there won’t be any pacts or anything like that with other parties. And we haven’t had those conversations with them.”

I think we’re firmly of the view that it has to be a whole of government approach. You know, it can’t be just this silo-based approach to government, like when the Greens went into government they looked at areas like the environment. It has to be whole government approach.

She explains that all parties in a coalition government much approach all issues from a similar viewpoint and that having separate focuses doesn’t work.

“I think you have a government of conflict,” she says.

Murphy claims, for example, that Fine Gael is about “outsourcing” responsibility and that her party could not approach government from this mindset.

“There really needs to be a stronger interventionist approach, whether that be in the project management of very big sites or whether it’s on the delivery of specific numbers of social houses and local authority houses.

There’s got to be integrated symmetry between the parties in government. And we’d love that opportunity if that opportunity arises.

Labour and the left

In his interview with TheJournal.ie, Howlin described the Social Democrats as a “practical party of the left” that Labour voters should consider giving a preference to.

He added that he saw no philosophical or policy divisions between the parties and that the obstacles to greater cooperation are mainly historic and based on personality.

A veteran of previous mergers of the Irish left, Murphy scoffs at suggestions that the parties would be better served working more closely together.

“Lookit, we’ve been here before, there’s history here. I remember the amalgamation of Democratic Left and the Labour Party. That was going to be greater than the sum of the two parts. And it didn’t end up being greater than the sum of the two parts.

“Sometimes people like choice,” she adds.

“And the thing about it is that we’re offering a choice, and it is different, there’s a cultural difference. And you can’t escape the fact that the Labour Party have a history, not just one history but a history of promising one thing and delivering something else. That is a significant issue for us.

“I think if we’ve got hard things to say to people in terms of what can’t happen, we should say them rather than promising things and signing a big commitment outside of Trinity College in relation to third-level fees. And then in actual fact, then they agreed to the exact opposite.”

TheJournal.ie was speaking to Murphy as party of a series of interviews with party leaders on the political response to the climate emergency.

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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