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Harris’ ‘relentless focus’ a key to how he does politics

Simon Harris is expected to be announced as Fine Gael leader tomorrow and Taoiseach on 9 April.

But what is his track record as a politician?

RTÉ Politicial Correspondent Mícheál Lehane reports.

Long before he was even a councillor, Simon Harris was helping draft policy in Leinster House.

As an 18-year-old he worked voluntarily for Fine Gael and was attached to the offices of Frances Fitzgerald and Jimmy Deenihan.

Mr Deenihan, the former FG TD from Kerry, recalls a major piece of work which comprehensively examined the lack of facilities for sport in secondary schools, was coordinated by a young Mr Harris.

Crucially it was his ability to slickly present the details of the work that most impressed senior party figures.

The work ultimately saw a greater emphasis placed on linking lottery sports funding to both schools and clubs.

Twenty years on Mr Deenihan has worked closely with Mr Harris again as part of efforts to boost investment at the Munster Technological University.

In fact, since becoming Minister for Higher Education, Mr Harris has visited the university six times.

It is a neat illustration of his tendency to keep those he has known for decades close to him politically.

It also captures his relentless focus on ensuring his profile is to the fore in all parts of the country.

‘It was all about politics’

One veteran staff member in Government Buildings recalls seeing a list last summer of ministers who were due to attend an agricultural event “down the county”.

The first confirmed attendee was Mr Harris even though it seemed to have no obvious links to either his ministerial brief or his Wicklow constituency.

He does keep a close eye on local matters too and is known to monitor everything from the latest deaths and condolences on to the sports results in his area.

Those of a similar age to himself involved in politics might have an admiration for the intensity he brings to this work, but equally there were many sneers at the almost shameless ambition in the early years.

“Back then he had few other interests. It was all about politics,” one remembers.

That unswerving, relentless focus has remained a key part of the way he does politics.

Simon Harris walks out of Leinster House on Thursday night after announcing his intention to run for leadership of Fine Gael

His regular approaches to Fine Gael TDs and Senators to find out if they need any assistance are well known.

They say he is consistent in getting things done for them, even if sometimes it can take a little longer than expected.

But there are observers in Leinster House who previously predicted his restless eagerness for promotion would prove his undoing.

They believed “he was in too much of a hurry” and this would ultimately amount to a weakness.

After all, the writer Ryszard Kapuscinski warned in his book ‘The Emperor’ that “without that ability to wait, to realise humbly that the chance may come only after years of waiting, there is no politician”.

Mr Harris did know how to wait patiently and he planned assiduously as he did so.

It was all apparent in the perfect execution of a strategy, long suspected of being several years in the making, that saw dozens of his colleagues rush to support him when the vacancy for Taoiseach arose.

‘Getting up very early for a long time’

Some senior figures in Fine Gael joke that he has been getting up very early for a long time and vowing each morning that he would become Taoiseach one day.

Indeed, he is well known for making multiple phone calls before 7am and can be sometimes over sensitive to media criticism.

The former boss of the HSE Tony O’Brien even went so far as to say that “he runs scared of headlines”.

He further added that he behaved “like a frightened little boy” during the CervicalCheck controversy.

At the time Leo Varadkar defended his minister and spoke of his “ability empathy and maturity”.

Mr Harris has always been unflappable in public debates even when his past promises do not seem to have been delivered.

In the Dáil recently he was taken to task over a pledge from his time in the Department of Health in 2017.

Back then he put in place a plan that no child would have to wait more than four months for spinal surgery.

Even though some children are now waiting up to five years for that surgery, Mr Harris insisted that significant progress was made in 2017, but it was reversed during the pandemic.

The ability to deliver a plausible defence against the most troubling of mounting evidence is a precious political skill that he regularly deploys.

It is a skill he will need in abundance as he soon begins work in his most challenging job yet.

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