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Who is Taoiseach-in-waiting Simon Harris?

The speed with which Simon Harris moved as soon as Leo Varadkar announced his sudden resignation as Fine Gael leader left party colleagues surprised and impressed in equal measure.

The 37-year-old hoovered up support from the parliamentary party so quickly no other potential candidate could contemplate a realistic campaign to challenge him.

For some years, Mr Harris has been quietly building senior allies within the Fine Gael party.

Those years of work will come to fruition today when he is expected to be voted in as Taoiseach in the Dáil, and later, formally appointed by President Michael D Higgins in Áras an Uachtaráin.

“This is a huge day in anyone’s life, only a handful of people ever get to be appointed as Taoiseach,” political commentator and Sunday Times columnist Alison O’Connor said.

Ms O’Connor said anyone taking on the top job in politics faces challenges, but with Fine Gael losing so many TDs, it’s “a particularly big challenge for Simon Harris”.

Simon Harris addressed the Fine Gael Ard Fheis for the first time as party leader on Saturday

There is no bedding-in period for a new taoiseach.

People expect the head of government to hit the ground running and the brief is vast.

In his speech at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis to the party faithful in Galway on Saturday, Mr Harris acknowledged that he was preparing to take on “the challenge of [his] life”.

He spoke about his brother Adam’s autism diagnosis being a catalyst for his life in politics.

Mr Harris set up an autism charity as a teenager, going on Open House on RTÉ to discuss the Triple A Alliance, an autism awareness charity.

He said he hoped to help other families who were facing a diagnosis of autism, Asperger’s or ADHD.

At the time, in 2002, he told presenter Mary Kennedy: “With over 40 members, we have a wealth of experience, people who’ve been through the system before.”

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Party colleague, Minister of State Neale Richmond, recalled his first meeting with Mr Harris.

He said: “There was a teenager from Greystones running for the national panel, who may or may not have been wearing his dad’s suit and I remember he canvassed for votes, and he was canvassing very eagerly before someone told him ‘it’s an uncontested election, you’re already elected’.

“But he went on to be [on the national council] of Young Fine Gael, I think he was either 16 or 17, really young, that was the start.

“We’ve known each other since, both elected to the council the same day…so it’s great 20 years on to see where he’s going next.”

Simon Harris arrives at the Dáil for the first time as an elected TD in 2011

Nobody could have predicted that 20 years later, Mr Harris would go on to lead Fine Gael in a similar, uncontested fashion.

But his meteoric rise through the ranks gave some indication of a chief in the making.

He was first elected as a councillor in 2009, becoming a TD in 2011.

He said at the time: “As the baby of the Dáil, I believe at 24 years of age I’m looking forward to bringing a fresh perspective and trying to feed into government new ideas and represent a generation that all too often doesn’t have a voice.”

In his maiden speech to the Dáil, Mr Harris nominated Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

Within three years, he was elevated to the junior ministerial ranks, and by the age of 29, he was appointed Minister for Health.

Simon Harris married Caoimhe Wade in 2017

There followed a number of years of relative calm, wherein he got married to Caoimhe Wade at a wedding attended by most of the cabinet.

The following year, in 2018, he spearheaded the campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment of the Constitution.

Initially describing himself as pro-life, Mr Harris changed his position having met with the women in the Termination for Medical Reasons group, saying he was moved by their personal stories.

In a rousing speech that day in May when the overwhelming yes vote was counted, Mr Harris told the gathered crowds: “Under the 8th Amendment, we said to women in crisis, take the boat, or take the plane, today we say, ‘take our hand.’”

Leo Varadkar, Catherine Noone and Simon Harris celebrate the results of the 8th Amendment referendum in 2018

But the honeymoon period would be short-lived as the CervicalCheck scandal erupted, eventually bringing down the head of the programme, as well as then-Health Service Executive chief Tony O’Brien.

Mr Harris sided with the women affected by the debacle, and largely earned their trust.

But the spiraling costs of the National Children’s Hospital was too much for the opposition, and Sinn Féin tabled a motion of no confidence in the health minister.

It was one he survived, but the threat of another the following year in 2020 led Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to call a general election.

Mr Harris took his seat on the 15th count, staying on as caretaker Minister for Health, while Government formation talks got underway.

The Covid-19 pandemic proved arguably Simon Harris’ biggest challenge

The Covid-19 pandemic proved arguably his biggest challenge, one he was widely regarded as handling adeptly, using social media to great effect.

Later appointed Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris did not fade into the background, maintaining a public profile again with the use of social media.

Taking over from Helen McEntee as Minister for Justice while she was on maternity leave, Mr Harris took a hands-on approach.

All along, Mr Harris was said to have his eye on the top job, indeed he was never reticent about admitting so.

Now, as he is poised to take over as taoiseach, the question one has to ask is whether Mr Harris’ priority will be renewing Fine Gael or running the country.

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Ms O’Connor said: “The number of people that are not going to be standing in the next election has got so many that it’s difficult at this point to keep track.

“And there certainly was very low morale in the party prior to the changeover with his predecessor.

“So, he has to try and build that back up and in a short space of time he is going to be facing the electorate with the local elections and the European elections and that could possibly be a very harsh judgment.”

She added that his challenge will be to “get the spark back into Fine Gael”.


Televised coverage of the Taoiseach’s election in the Dáil begins on RTÉ One and the RTÉ News Channel at 10.20am


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