Shared Island: Belfast solicitor who beat Covid-19 spearheading drive for a Border poll

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.

Softly-softly approach

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.