Prof. Gary Murphy, one of the senior most faculty members of the School of Law and Government, spoke to Moign Khawaja, the in-house journalist, about a wide range of issues including his illustrious career, working from home due to Corona Virus mass-quarantine, and ongoing negotiations for forming government. Here is the full script of the interview:
MK – Hello Gary! Please tell us about yourself and your career here in L&G.
GM – Hello Moign. I have worked in DCU for twenty-five years and am the longest serving member of the School of Law and Government. When I began working in DCU in 1995 the School didn’t exist and I was only the fourth member of what was then the Law and Government group in the Business School. In September 2002 under the leadership of our late and sadly missed colleague Robert Elgie, the School of Law and Government was founded. We had ten staff, six PhD students and no students of our own. We now have some 35 staff and over a thousand students on our three undergraduate degrees, the joint honours degree, our seven masters’ degrees and our PhD programme.
MK – How have you managed your working days given the crisis?
GM – In one way I thought I had seen it all at DCU but nothing could have prepared me for the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in given the global struggle against Covid-19. But it is our job to rise to the challenges we face. In that context I am proud to be a member of both Law and Government, and DCU, as we do our best to meet these challenges. I managed to record all my lectures on Zoom and put them on Loop over the last two weeks, and I am keeping in close contact with my students through Loop and email.
Today I attended the very first School of Law and Government meeting by zoom. I had wondered how this would go but in the end it was a very productive meeting as we discussed a variety of pressing issues in this unprecedented age. These included the challenges of online teaching, programme development for the next academic year, and staff development. All are huge challenges. It is of the utmost importance that we guide our students through this academic year and give them every support we can. We must operate under the maxim that none of our students can be disadvantaged by this crisis. But we must also prepare for the next academic year even if at this stage we have no idea of what that will yet look like given the uncertainty around the Leaving Certificate and when the universities will be allowed open again. So to some extent we are preparing in the dark, but prepare we must. We shared lots of good ideas on how best to answer the questions we are faced with. The most important take for me out of this meeting was the great feeling of solidarity amongst colleagues as we support our students and each other in these trying and difficult times.
MK – What about your research?
GM – My research career has revolved around two issues; the regulation of lobbying and the development of Irish politics. Last year with three colleagues in other Irish universities we published the second edition of our book Regulating Lobbying: A Global Comparison. This year has been a very busy one with the Irish general election and its aftermath. When life seemed somewhat normal back in January and February much of my time was taken up with commenting on the general election. I was part of a daily election broadcast on the Last Word programme on Today FM and wrote comment pieces for the Irish Times, the Irish Examiner, and the Irish Mail on Sunday. I also appeared on a variety of RTE radio and television programmes and spent most of the Sunday and Monday after the election in an RTE studio. The election was clearly the most extraordinary in the history of the state with Sinn Féin winning the most votes. It was extraordinary to see Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two parties which have dominated the state since its foundation receive less than 45 per cent of the vote between them. I felt very privileged to be able to comment on it. I did a variety of interviews with the international media including the BBC, NPR, Reuters, Vox, and Spanish National Radio trying to explain the result to a very interested worldwide audience. Irish politics never ceases to amaze me and I consider myself fortunate to be able to write, comment and teach on it.
MK – Are we near a government now do you think?
GM – Over seven weeks after the election the search for a government seems to be coming to a conclusion after a glacial period of non-negotiation. In the immediate aftermath of the election there was two plausible routes to a government and one rather implausible one given the way the numbers of seats had fallen. To remind ourselves there are 160 seats in the Dáil; Fianna Fáil won 38, Sinn Féin 37, Fine Gael 35, Greens 12, Labour 6, Social Democrats 6, Solidarity / People Before Profit 5, and a range of differing independents 21.
The first plausible scenario was a coalition of Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, and either the Greens or a number of independents. The big problem with this option was whether Fianna Fáil’s leader Micheál Martin could ever live with it. Could the party’s leader since 2011 plausibly lead it into such an arrangement given that he had spent all his political career criticising Sinn Féin and flatly refused to enter government with it prior to the election.
Fianna Fáil never envisaged a scenario where it would lose seats in Martin’s third election as leader but the results were nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for the party and forced Martin into looking at the second serious option. This was that Fianna Fáil would go into government with Fine Gael, and either the Greens or a number of independents. The problem here is that Martin, during the election campaign, had also stated that he would not go into coalition government with Fine Gael. This scenario also runs against the mantra of change that dominated the election. Ultimately, the election was a rejection of Fine Gael in government and Fianna Fáil has had to consider whether it can justifiably enter into an arrangement that keeps Fine Gael in power.
That thorny problem preoccupied Fianna Fáil in the first few weeks after the election. It has now become far more pressing as Covid-19 has arrived in Ireland with a vengeance. As the ongoing caretaker government struggles to contain the crisis and leads the efforts to flatten the curve government formation has at one level taken a back seat. This is entirely understandable. But at another level the country needs a new government with a mandate out of the election as major decisions will have to be taken in the immediate future. It is far better that these decisions be taken by a new government elected by the current Dáil. Given the emergence of the Coronoravirus crisis Fianna Fáil have for the most part cast aside its worries about Fine Gael and negotiations between the two parties have ramped up recently. Fine Gael’s immediate view after the election was that as it came third it was incumbent on Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin to form a government. But the crisis seems to have persuaded Fine Gael that it should remain in office and if that means coalition with Fianna Fáil, so be it.
A third but rather implausible option after the election was that Sinn Féin would lead a left wing government which included the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats, Solidarity/People Before Profit, and a variety of independents. While there are 87 non Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael seats in the Dáil such a government was never likely to happen and Labour immediately removed itself from this option. Just a week after the election Sinn Féin themselves said it could not be done.
A fourth option has been raised in the last two weeks by the Green party and that is a government of national unity to include all parties to deal with the Coronavirus crisis for a defined period of time. No one else seems to be interested in it though.
As of now it seems that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will have a programme for government document concluded over the next week and then they will have to see whether they can get one of the smaller parties, the Greens, Labour, or the Social Democrats to sign up to it. It is likely that a number of independents, perhaps up to ten, would support such an arrangement making this government relatively stable. Yet there is still much work to be done. There is no guarantee any of the small parties will sign up to such an agreement and in fact all of them have said they won’t. But as the crisis worsens what has become clear is that a new government is needed and needed quickly and that could well change minds.
MK – It was interesting election for Law and Government?
GM – Indeed it was. Our colleague Roderic O’Gorman, who I actually hired when I was Head of School, back in 2012, was elected Green Party TD for Dublin West in the general election. Roderic is the first ever DCU employee to win a seat in Dáil Eireann and we are all immensely proud of him.
The general election saw two of our alumni elected, Helen MacEntee who was in the very first Economics, Politics and Law class between 2004 and 2007 was elected for Fine Gael in Meath East and Duncan Smith who is a graduate of our MA in International Security and Conflict was elected for Labour in Dublin Fingal. And just today one of our students, Lynn Boylan, who is studying on the MSc in Climate Change, was elected to Seanad Eireann on the Agricultural panel for Sinn Féin. Congratulations to them all.
MK – Are you getting much writing done, working for home?
GM – Yes. I spent the first week finishing my chapter for the forthcoming book on the Irish election, entitled How Ireland Voted 2020. This is the ongoing series of books examining every aspect of the election. I am writing the first chapter on the road to the election which assesses the political events between the formation of the government in 2016 and the calling of the election in January 2020. It was an eventful time. I have written this opening chapter of the series since 2002. Our Law and Government colleague Eoin O’Malley is writing the government formation chapter so while mine is safely with the editors, poor Eoin is still waiting for the government to be formed. I am also trying to finish my biography of the former Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey. This has been a long term project, a sort of life’s work, and at last I can see the end in sight so I’m hoping to finish it off over the next few months.
MK – Thank you, Gary.
GM – Thank you, Moign and stay safe. In fact, I would like to finish by expressing solidarity with all our colleagues, students, alumni and friends. We will get through this so keep strong everybody. It will pass and we can appreciate all the things we miss like live sport and going for a drink with friends that little bit more when it is over.