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Home / News / Time will tell if Harris spark can Fine Gael ‘renewal’

Time will tell if Harris spark can Fine Gael ‘renewal’

The gales were bashing the waves against the iconic Blackrock Diving Tower in Salthill. But over in the University of Galway it was the winds of change within Fine Gael that dominated conversations.

With a new party leader set to be elected Taoiseach in the Dáil on Tuesday, the buzzword of the day was “renewal”.

The theme of the conference was “a new energy” and there was even a reference by the EU Commissioner, Mairead McGuinness, to the party’s “renewable energy”.

The opposition might dismiss Fine Gael’s leadership changeover, between Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris, as a new face with the same old tired policies.

But delegates packed into the Bailey Allen Hall – beside the college bar – were lapping up their party leader’s dig at Sinn Féin as the party that promises change “but what they mean is that they will change their mind at every chance.”

There was no shortage of catchy slogans from Mr Harris and he did not hold back in putting the fight up to the opposition.

However, with less than a year to go until the general election, he will need a lot more than that to turn around Fine Gael’s fortunes.

Simon Harris pictured with former party leader Leo Varadkar (Pic:

While he did signpost a shift in direction, back to the basics of law and order, rural communities and lower taxes from Fine Gael, there was a lack of the real detail that voters will want to see when they cast judgement on his time in office.

There will be time for policy announcements and they can be certain in the coming weeks. But the question that could determine his electoral fortune is whether he will have enough time to deliver them.

A sign of his ambition was his declaration that – after more than a decade in power, and with less than a year to the next general election, he wants “for once and for all” to solve the housing crisis.

Despite arriving on stage to “you ain’t seen nothing yet” the 38-year-old tried to speak to a younger generation, saying “I want you to know that your future is here in Ireland”.

He added that he would “move mountains” to ensure that they move out of the box room and into a home of their own.

But how many will get a chance to do so between now and next March, if the coalition runs until then?

Insisting that the party “will always stand for law and order” he promised laws to allow judges to impose minimum sentences for the most serious crimes.

Simon Harris was speaking at his first Ard Fheis as head of Fine Gael (Pics: Rolling News)

This was also promised by Leo Varadkar at the party’s conference in Maynooth last November and has not progressed since then.

He said he would “immediately convene a Dublin city centre task force” to bring together the council, businesses and community groups to “chart a path towards a safer and vibrant Dublin.”

This initiative will be welcomed by many in the city, but had echoes of Enda Kenny’s north east inner city task force of 2016, that failed to address many of the issues that it set out to.

Mr Harris’ speech also focused on farmers and rural Ireland, saying “we have got your back” before what might have been one of the strongest cheers of the night, with the mere mention of Mayo TD, Michael Ring.

The party leader promised a plan to address issues facing farmers “on succession and retirement and other worries” – something that featured during the recent failed referendum campaign on changing the definition of family to “durable relationships.”

Mr Harris saved his strongest words for the actions of Israel in Gaza, saying anyone who can countenance deliberate starvation has lost their humanity.

Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris embrace as Helen McEntee looks on

“Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Irish people could not be clearer. We are repulsed by your actions. Ceasefire now and let the aid flow safely,” he said.

“We need a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living side-by-side, in peace and security. I reiterate Ireland stands ready to recognise the state of Palestine,” he told the crowd to a standing ovation.

In a speech that could be viewed as his first big test, the opening act for his tenure as Taoiseach, he pressed all the right buttons for a party that is clearly craving a sense of direction that harks back to its more successful days.

The 82nd Fine Gael Ard Fheis was opportune timing for him. Just three days ahead of his likely election as Taoiseach in the Dáil, it was the perfect scene setter for his tenure.

He used the spotlight of the event to tell the wider public who he is and what he is about.

The son of a special needs assistant and a taxi driver, and the eldest of three, he said the diagnosis of his brother, Adam, with autism was a “formative experience” that led him to politics.

And he sounded somewhere between emotional and overwhelmed as he took to the stage, declaring he was about to take on “the biggest challenge” of his life.

While he is not short on ambition and promises, he is on time. As he said himself, “time is short and there is so much to do.”

It remains to be seen how much meaningful “renewal” he can manage within the limits of time and a three-party coalition .

Whether the new gust of energy and enthusiasm is enough to blow away the cobwebs of a party that had become jaded from 14 years in office, is as unpredictable as the Galway weather.

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