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Simon Harris: A savvy politician who has long eyed the role of Irish premier

After Leo Varadkar’s whirlwind resignation, Simon Harris is set to become the new leader of Fine Gael and Ireland’s next premier.

In a matter of hours, the Wicklow TD garnered a plethora of parliamentarians, MEPs and councillors to back him as the party’s next leader following Mr Varadkar’s shock decision.

The 37-year-old father of two has been described by his party colleagues as “energetic”, “a great communicator” and as having a “vision for Ireland that is about equality of opportunity”.

A media-savvy and personable politician who is well-versed on social media sites Instagram and TikTok, he has been at the helm of three departments over an eight-year period.

His visibility during his tenure as justice minister – covering for minister Helen McEntee while she was on maternity leave – fuelled speculation on his interest in a leadership bid for the so-called “law and order” party.

A student of journalism at DIT at one point, he has quickly gone from writing about headlines to making them.

An Garda Scott Medal Presentations
Simon Harris (left) arriving for a ceremony to award deceased, retired and serving members of An Garda Siochana with bravery medals (Brian Lawless/PA)

As a young boy growing up in the seaside town of Greystones in Co Wicklow, Mr Harris is said to have repeatedly stated he wanted to be taoiseach.

After cutting his political teeth as an assistant to former justice minister Frances Fitzgerald when she was a senator, and then working as a councillor, he was elected to the Irish parliament as its youngest TD in 2011.

His maiden speech in the Dail was to nominate Enda Kenny as taoiseach.

He served as a junior minister in the Department of Finance from 2014 before being propelled to the role of minister for health in the Fine Gael-led minority government that was formed in 2016.

Known as one of the most difficult Irish ministries, Mr Harris faced issues such as the ownership of the National Maternity Hospital, the spiralling cost of the National Children’s Hospital and a controversy around Ireland’s cervical cancer screening programme.

After the Irish public voted to liberalise its abortion laws in a 2018 referendum, Mr Harris received praise – and even adoration – by campaigners who viewed him a strong voice for the Yes campaign.

Ireland abortion laws
Ailbhe Smyth, convenor of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, hugs Simon Harris during a Together for Yes billboard launch in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)

In the February 2020 general election, Mr Harris was returned on the 15th count and remained as a caretaker health minister.

In the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic, he urged people to wear face coverings and adhere to new rules, but was also criticised for an absence of planning for nursing homes.

After incorrectly stating during a radio interview that Covid-19 meant there were 18 other coronaviruses, he did an Instagram live video where he showed humility by apologising and stating he was an “awful old idiot at times”.

In the three-party coalition government, he became minister at the newly-formed Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

As higher education minister, he toured the country opening and speaking at educational institutions, and during his brief stint as justice minister he traversed bogs with families of The Disappeared.

Columba McVeigh search
Simon Harris, Senator Emer Currie and Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys talk with Oliver McVeigh (left), the brother of Columba McVeigh, during a visit to the remote Bragan Bog in Co Monaghan (Peter Morrison/PA)

In one of a series of public events, Mr Harris took part in in his last week as justice minister, he told a room of gardai: “I want to let you know we have your back.

“We need to live in a country where we don’t as politicians just wring our hands and condemn, though condemning is important, we actually need to update the laws to support the gardai, and that’s what I’ll endeavour to do.

“It’s very easy for people to sit behind desks, or people like me to go in front of microphones and second-guess the Gardai. I’ll never do that, because I trust your operational judgment.”

Once taking up the role as taoiseach, he will take Leo Varadkar’s old title as the youngest-ever Irish premier.