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Friday, 23 March, 2001, 13:33 GMT
Paul Murphy: Welsh Secretary

By BBC Wales's political correspondent Simon Thomas

On the day in February 2000 when Rhodri Morgan was chosen by the Wales Labour Party to take over from the fallen Alun Michael, Paul Murphy was to be found telling every available journalist: "We learned lessons from this, we'd handle it differently in future."

It was obviously the Downing Street line (and it was already too late to put into practice in the London Mayoral race), but it fitted well with the Welsh secretary's public persona - flexible, pragmatic, urbane, diplomatic.

Those were no doubt characteristics that served him well as Northern Ireland minister for political development, the post he held before moving to the Wales Office in July 1999.

But he needed those qualities to smooth the switch from Belfast to Cardiff itself.


The big constitutional question is of course whether Paul Murphy will be the last Welsh Secretary - and even if he really has a job now

Simon Thomas
He was, after all, an opponent of devolution in 1979 and was hardly one of its greatest advocates now.

Making him Secretary of State for Wales just as the Welsh Assembly assumed its powers looked a bit like putting the fox in charge of the hen-coop.

He swiftly defused any potential tension by saying times had moved on.

The transfer from the Northern Ireland Office to Wales Office mirrored Murphy's own family history.

As his name suggests his antecedents are Irish. His great-grandfather came to Wales to work in the iron industry. His grandfather and father worked in the pits.

So Irish ancestry, but deep Welsh roots too.

Paul Murphy, Secretary of State for Wales
Paul Murphy: Defused tension
Born in November 1948, Mr Murphy was educated at St Francis School, Absersychan and West Monmouth School, Pontypool.

After Oriel College Oxford and a short period as a management trainee, he worked as a lecturer in government at Ebbw Vale Further Education College.

He trod the traditional political path of sitting as a councillor (for Torfaen Borough Council) before winning the Torfaen seat for Labour in 1987. He has held it ever since.

Birth, schooling and political experience all situated in the Gwent valleys in south east Wales - it all places Paul Murphy in a part of the Welsh Labour Party which, as well as being at best lukewarm about devolution, has a visceral antipathy to "the nationalists."

It is a small irony that one of the anecdotes about his time in Northern Ireland tells of his use of a few words of Welsh to defuse a tense moment when Sinn Fein delegates starting speaking in Gaelic.

In their more paranoid moments Labour politicians with Mr Murphy's background have had a tendency to see any concession to Plaid Cymru as a ramp for the "nashies" from north West Wales to impose a requirement on everyone to speak Welsh.

Mr Murphy is too subtle to say that, but the diplomacy is put to one side when it comes to" bashing the nats" - "daffodil Tories" is his favourite line. Expect more during the election.

The big constitutional question is of course whether Paul Murphy will be the last Welsh secretary - and even if he really has a job now.

If the post is scrapped it will be hard to blame Mr Murphy.

Children's Commissioner

He will not say it, but close sources say one of his main roles has been "going round with a bucket and shovel" cleaning up after assembly ministers who have ruffled Whitehall feathers.

He succeeded in getting legislation to expand the Children's Commissioners's powers into the last Queen's speech and negotiated Wales' share of Gordon Brown's extra spending in last July's Comprehensive Spending Review.

There has also been a noticeable lack of the turf wars which bedevilled Scotland under John Reid and the late Donald Dewar.

No doubt factors other than Mr Murphy's conduct of the post will determine its fate.

But if it does disappear and if he does find himself without a government job, the Papal Knight who holidays with his priest will probably be diplomatic enough to confine any objections he has to the confessional.

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