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Suzanne Breen

Even if he stays on as minister, Conor Murphy will find it difficult to shake off the shameful words he spoke

Suzanne Breen


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Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy on Spotlight

Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy on Spotlight

Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy on Spotlight

Conor Murphy has a reputation for being one of the most moderate and reasonable voices in Sinn Fein. He's certainly someone with whom the DUP and the Government find it easy to do business.

He was described as a constructive force in the talks to restore devolution.

A highly ambitious politician, he was rewarded with the plum finance portfolio in the new Executive.

He was once widely tipped to succeed Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. If Michelle O'Neill steps down, he is in prime position to take over.

Murphy has certainly been her right-hand man in recent months. His support was instrumental when she faced a leadership challenge from John O'Dowd. Without him by her side, she would have been in a very precarious position.

Now it's the south Armagh politician whose career is under pressure. It is very unlikely that he will voluntarily step down, or that Sinn Fein will tell him to.

Murphy's actions are far more damning than McElduff's. The former West Tyrone MP said he didn't know it was the Kingsmill anniversary when he balanced the loaf on his head

West Tyrone MP Barry McElduff resigned after he was caught up in controversy when he balanced a Kingsmill loaf on his head on the anniversary of the atrocity in 2018.

But McElduff was dispensable for his party. There was no equivalent in his area of the powerful south Armagh figures who back Murphy.

But even if he continues as Finance Minister, Murphy will generally be viewed very differently by the public now that Breege and Stephen Quinn have had the chance to tell their story to a wide audience.

It's one that shows Murphy in an unflattering light. The IRA murdered young Paul Quinn, and then the local Sinn Fein MLA called him a smuggler and a criminal and murdered his reputation.

Murphy's actions are far more damning than McElduff's. The former West Tyrone MP said he didn't know it was the Kingsmill anniversary when he balanced the loaf on his head.

When resigning, he spoke of the "deep and unnecessary hurt" he had caused the families. It was his "greatest regret". He accepted there were people who refused to believe that he didn't intend to offend the victims. He offered his "profound apology".

By contrast, Conor Murphy's words to RTE on Wednesday sounded colder and formulaic. Whatever the intention, the interview did not come across as heartfelt.

While McElduff's action was on the spur-of-the-moment in a garage late at night, Murphy's original words were spoken in a sit-down recorded TV interview. And he repeatedly refused to withdraw them for 13 years. His credibility is also brought into question by the fact that for so long he actually denied saying what he said.

Responding to the Quinns' demand that he withdraw his slur against their murdered son, he told the Irish News in 2017 that claims he had called Paul a criminal were "totally without foundation".

Mary Lou McDonald said on Monday night that Murphy had told her the same thing: "He is very clear he never said that." When RTE's Tommie Gorman asked Murphy on Wednesday if he had misled McDonald, he said he hadn't. He said the Sinn Fein president had "a misunderstanding of what I said".

"She'd assumed I said one thing. I made clear with her what my remarks had been at the time. There was no misleading here. There was simply a misunderstanding on her behalf."

Murphy added: "I dispute this idea that I'd not got a consistent story."

But how is his story consistent when he told the Irish News in 2017 - as Mary Lou originally said he had told her - that he hadn't made the offensive remarks? Murphy needs to be questioned on this.

The Finance Department's permanent secretary Sue Grey - once the most influential female civil servant in Whitehall - welcomed Murphy to Stormont last month. "Really looking forward to working with you and supporting you," she tweeted.

But regardless of how Murphy performs, it will be difficult for him to ever shake off those shameful words he spoke about young Paul Quinn.

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