Simon Harris | The TikTok Taoiseach

The Fine Gael leader is set to become the youngest Irish Premier at a time when the country is faced with an acute housing crisis and the ruling party is battling dwindling popularity

March 31, 2024 01:53 am | Updated 11:49 am IST

Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

“This is a moment for Fine Gael to reset,” said Simon Harris after he was appointed the new leader of the Fine Gael, the centre-right party leading Ireland’s ruling coalition, after the shock resignation of previous party leader and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on March 20. At 37, Mr. Harris is set to become the youngest ever Taoiseach when the Dail (Irish parliament) reconvenes in April. He is determined to let the government run its full term until elections next year.

Mr. Harris was introduced to politics at the very young age of 16 when he, frustrated by the lack of information and guidance for people with autism like his brother, called for a public meeting in his neighbourhood on the issue which led to a lobby/support group for people and children with autism. Even though he calls himself an ‘accidental politician’, Mr. Harris seems to have paved his way in politics well in advance when one looks at how he rose through the ranks.

Dropping out of college to make his mark in politics, Mr. Harris, at the age of 22, was elected councillor of Wicklow in 2009. He then became a member of parliament at 24, a junior Minister at 27 and held his first ever Cabinet position at 29 as Minister for Health in 2016. From 2020 onwards, he held the post of Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, which being a lighter cabinet position gave him more space to travel and connect with the people of the Irish republic, in-person and through social media. His strong online presence has earned him the moniker, the ‘TikTok Taoiseach’.

Mr. Harris oversaw the beginning of safety and quarantine precautions when COVID-19 first hit the country. He was applauded for his foresight in mandating necessary safeguards and ordering a total closure of schools and colleges almost a fortnight before the U.K. Another feather in his cap as Health Minister was bringing in the 36th amendment of the Constitution, which came out of the 2018 referendum that called for an upturn of Ireland’s near-total ban on abortion. While speaking about the same in Parliament, Mr. Harris remarked that the referendum was a resounding affirmation of support for the right of women to make choices about their lives.

However, it has not all been smooth-sailing for Mr. Harris. In February, 2019, he faced a no-confidence motion moved by the Sinn Fein, the opposition political party and former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), over the cost-overruns at the new national children’s hospital. The hospital, one of the government’s biggest construction projects, which was to be built at an estimated cost of €800 million euros in 2014, rose to almost €1.43 billion by 2019. The opposition called the project a financial mismanagement which happened under Minister Harris and that he must be removed from office. Mr. Harris survived the motion and went on to state that the government would build the children’s hospital and “get to the bottom of what has gone wrong”.

It was also under his tenure that the cervical cancer smear test scandal broke out. In April 2018, Vicky Phelan, a 43-year old woman, accused the Irish government’s health authority of misdiagnosing a routine pap smear she underwent in 2011, which later turned out to be positive for cervical cancer. Many more women (over 200) then came forward sharing stories of how their state-run pap smear tests were given as negative when it should have been flagged as positive, thus depriving these women of an early diagnosis and another chance at life. Mr. Harris was criticised for the handling of the scandal and the subsequent ‘free pap-smear tests’ that he gave out when the scandal broke.

Challenges ahead

Mr. Harris was quick to take a dig at the Opposition when he stated in his appointment speech that the “Sinn Féin cannot bear to look back over what Fine Gael has achieved since pulling our economy back from the brink.…they cannot handle the truth.” Mr. Harris said his party supports small businesses and education, and is committed to making ‘work pay’. He was met with thunderous applause from party workers when he asserted that his government was committed to law and order. “We stand on the side of the garda (Irish police), for streets that are safe. In a week, I saw a tricolour spread over the coffin of a garda killer, I say shame”, said Mr. Harris, referring to how the Irish tricolour flag was donned on the coffin of former IRA member Pearse Mccauley who was convicted of killing a member of the Garda in 1996.

However, the youngest ever Irish Premier has his work cut out for him. Ireland faces an extreme housing crisis, topped only by concerns over mass immigration and the record number of asylum seekers and refugees. Additionally, inheriting a three-party coalition leaves very little room for the incumbent Prime Minister to make any major policy changes, which remains a handicap as his party has been seen as being ‘too left’ as of late. This waning popularity can be reflected in the polls by election-trackers; according to the Irish polling indicator,

After almost a decade of Fine Gael rule, Sinn Fein has the support of 28% voters, almost eight percentage points ahead of the ruling party. The government will have to strive hard in order to win big in the forthcoming elections.

Whether it be ‘resetting’ the party or forming a new Cabinet, it remains to be seen what impact Mr. Harris can have in his short tenure as Prime Minister.

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