Yet most people in Northern Ireland will welcome his selection. Murphy has Irish roots. His ancestors left Ireland during the Famine. some came to the U.S. and others moved east to Britain. But that is clearly not the chief reason why Prime Minister Blair would feel confident in placing the difficult task of running Northern Ireland on his shoulders.
Murphy has the great advantage of having firsthand experience of the place. Indeed, few British politicians could claim the depth of experience he has enjoyed. Murphy was minister of political development under Mo Mowlam from 1997-99, when she held the post of Northern Ireland secretary of state. Indeed, when Mowlam, who was popular with nationalists, was removed from office, Murphy was widely tipped as her replacement, only to be nudged aside by Peter Mandelson. He became secretary of state for Wales, his homeland.
During his stay, Murphy was deeply involved in the negotiations that led to the drafting of the Good Friday agreement. In fact, he is credited with doing the kind of detailed work that went into the agreement to make it the complex document that it is. Murphy, therefore, is no freshman on the scene. He knows the tangled and finely tuned nature of the accords that hold the peace process together, since he helped fashion them.
This means that the new man is also familiar with all the major players. He has dealt with them up close, and, reports suggest, he is trusted by most of them. All of this is positive. But the task he faces still remains a formidable one.
He arrives in the middle of the latest, and potentially, most serious crisis to confront the peace process. The power-sharing assembly has shut down after the Ulster Unionists threatened to pull out unless Sinn Fein was expelled from the government. Blair has said that there is only one way for the institutions to be restored. That is, for the IRA to demonstrate clearly and unambiguously that the violent campaign is over for good. He has chosen Murphy to enforce that message. That will be no easy task in the face of continuing sectarian attacks from loyalists. Confidence can only be restored on all sides if that threat is convincingly dealt with. The recent loyalist arms finds are a start. But there is still a long way to go.