Niall Murphy is the Belfast solicitor leading the drive for a Border poll on a united Ireland. He is the main voice of Ireland’s Future, previously known as the “civic nationalism” group of writers, historians, sportspeople, actors and others whose goal is unification.
His great sporting love is hurling, the former Kilkenny great DJ Carey one of his heroes and also a supporter of the campaign.
Murphy himself has a junior All-Ireland hurling medal from 2002, when his county, Antrim, defeated Meath in the final.
Junior hurling is a notoriously tough grounding, which may partly explain his combative nature. He has broad shoulders and a verbal pugnacity that works well in his legal practice.
That assertive personality may have helped him too in a well-publicised tussle with coronavirus. Towards the end of March, he ended up in a critical condition in hospital with the virus. He was in an induced coma for 16 days with, he was later told, a 50:50 chance of surviving.
Luckily, he did pull through with the assistance of National Health Service (NHS) staff, to whom he is very grateful. Such a health service must be part of a united Ireland, he says. “It would be a declaration to those who live in North and who cherish the NHS that that’s how it’s going to be going forward.”
He suspects he may have contracted the virus while promoting Ireland’s Future on speaking engagements in Glasgow and New York.
That experience hasn’t tempered his enthusiasm for pressing the case for a Border poll. He wants a referendum on a united Ireland in three years’ time and is convinced unity is inevitable, sooner rather than later.
Some urge a softly-softly approach to the unity question, particularly given the disquiet this is causing unionism, but not Murphy.
He previously described Northern Ireland as a “micro jurisdiction”. When asked about that reference, he says “it was just one sentence in a bigger speech”, but doesn’t retreat from it.
Indeed, he goes on: “The Manchester general area has a bigger population [than Northern Ireland]. It can’t raise taxes. Tesco has a bigger turnover than the economy here.” Then he pauses, considers, and asserts: “It is not an economy.”
In Murphy’s office in central Belfast are large framed pictures of newspaper articles in which he features; one relates to him winning a six-figure libel award for Dana.
He has represented republicans, including some very senior dissidents, and loyalists, as well as scores of people bereaved or injured by the very groups of which those paramilitary clients were members.
“It’s the ‘cab rank rule’ that covers every practitioner in the North, solicitor or barrister. You represent who calls upon your services without fear or favour.”
Murphy was born and reared and still lives in Glengormley, north Belfast. Both parents were primary school teachers.
In 2004, Murphy started an Irish language primary school in Glengormley, Gaelscoil Éanna, with just seven pupils. It now has 211 children and is preparing to build a brand new £4 million (€4.43 million) school building. He is married with three children.
Born in 1977, he says he is fortunate that the Troubles didn’t seriously visit his immediate family. But the Troubles had a huge impact on his local GAA club, St Enda’s. A number of members were killed and injured, and the club premises was targeted numerous times by loyalist paramilitaries from north Belfast and southeast Antrim.
Among those killed was the 72-year-old club president, Sean Fox, murdered by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 1993.
In 1997, the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) murdered 36-year-old Gerry Devlin at the club while in 2002 the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) murdered another St Enda’s member, 19-year-old Gerard Lawlor, identified as a Catholic by his Glasgow Celtic shirt.
“Those are formative experiences in your life journey,” Murphy says.
He knew the three men well and is representing the Lawlor and Devlin families in cases against the British state. He alleges official collusion in those two killings.
After completing a law degree at Queen’s University, he applied to 40 solicitors’ firms for a job. Madden and Finucane, the firm of murdered solicitor Pat Finucane, gave him his break. “They were the only ones to reply.”
With the firm, he also worked on the preparation for the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and assisted in taking statements that ultimately formed part of the evidence base for the inquiry. He left with Kevin Winter to form KRW Law before the formal inquiry kicked into full gear.
Also centrally involved in the Ireland’s Future movement are former SDLP councillor, historian and Irish News columnist, Brian Feeney; businessman Gerry Carlile and nationalist commentators Patricia MacBride and Chris Donnelly. But Murphy is its spearhead, one of its founders, its secretary and chief spokesman.
The movement was fuelled by what it viewed as DUP disrespect of nationalism, including DUP leader Arlene Foster’s now infamous remark about crocodiles. She said in 2017 “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more”, in relation to Sinn Féin’s demand for an Irish language Act. There was also DUP MP Gregory Campbell’s “curry my yogurt” take on the language, a semi-phonetic mockery of “go raibh maith agat” [thank you], and a DUP minister’s cutting of a paltry Gaeltacht grant.
Ireland’s Future took flight in December 2017 with a letter to then taoiseach Leo Varadkar, asking him to protect nationalists against a denial of rights they believed was flowing from the then Conservative-DUP confidence-and-supply deal at Westminster.
That letter had 200 signatories from people involved in academia, business, arts, sports, culture, community, education and other areas.
They upped their game in November 2018 with another letter to Varadkar, this time with more than 1,000 signatories, majoring on the threat of Brexit.
That the movement was gaining traction became strikingly evident when the group held what was billed as a conference at the Belfast Waterfront Hall in January last year. “Conference” though doesn’t quite cut it – darkly lit, with an electric atmosphere and attended by 2,000 people, a high-octane “rally” might better describe the event.
There was a real sense of a nationalist awakening on the day.
A third letter was published in November last year with a greater focus on the Republic. Again, it had more than 1,000 signatories and this time the emphasis was on how “discussion about the reunification of Ireland has moved centre stage”.
The letter called on the Government to establish a citizens’ assembly or forum “to discuss the future and achieve maximum consensus on a way forward”.
Signatories included actors Adrian Dunbar and Stephen Rae; singers Frances and Mary Black and Christy Moore; writers Carlo Gebler and Ronan Bennett; Ireland football international James McClean and former Cork, Offaly and Kilkenny hurlers Donal Óg Cusack, Joe Dooley and the aforementioned DJ Carey.
Also on the list were economist David McWilliams and Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole.
Some have described Ireland’s Future as a “Sinn Féin front” but Murphy points to the breadth of its supporters’ backgrounds to challenge that view.
Murphy wants a citizens’ assembly to examine the practicalities of what a united Ireland would entail. The Government’s Shared Island Unit is at least a move in the right direction, he feels. “We think there is possibly more that could be done but it is a step nonetheless and we want to engage with it as enthusiastically and progressively as possible.”
He is impatient for a Border poll. The date he has in mind for the plebiscite is May 23rd, 2023, marking the 25th anniversary of the 1998 referendum count when the Belfast Agreement was passed in the North by 71 per cent of the vote and by 94 per cent in the South.
Murphy says it’s wrong to suggest Ireland’s Future has not engaged with unionism. “We have had private consultations with civic unionism, and we have invited political unionist representatives to attend and speak at our events. That’s important to say.
“Any constitutional settlement on this island must involve input from unionists because they live here. It’s their island too, it’s their home. They are neighbours, I have no exalted position on this island over anybody,” he stresses, while adding, “and nor does anybody over me”.
But while he says the organisation has reached out to certain unionists, Murphy is highly critical of what he calls “political unionism”. He makes claims of corruption by some unionists he doesn’t name in relation to the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) and to lucrative contracts he says were awarded to certain businesspeople.
He describes Northern Ireland as a “failed state that refused to embrace” people’s rights. “We live in a state that has fundamentally ordained itself with a single identity,” he says. “Even when one goes to Stormont there’s a statue of a gun-runner,” referring to the striking statute of former Ulster unionist Lord Edward Carson, and the UVF gun-running of 1914.
In a united Ireland “there will be no infringement of religious and civil liberties”, he says.
The late Seamus Mallon warned of the dangers of settling for unification on the basis of a 50 per cent plus one vote, as provided for in the consent principle of the Belfast Agreement, but Murphy has no such concerns.
He doesn’t wear the argument that if pushed too hard and too early the campaign for a Border poll could generate a violent loyalist backlash, and hence care and caution are necessary.
“I don’t think anybody has an appetite for that,” he says. “Ulster loyalism might find itself at odds with English nationalism. English nationalism has imposed an economic border in the Irish Sea. Irish nationalism didn’t. English nationalism has delivered an economic united Ireland and will impose it.”
In the meantime, and as the campaign rolls on, Murphy insists he wants Northern Ireland to work and be successful. He is full of confidence. “Things are changing. And, you know, King Canute can’t hold back the tide.”