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A day with Simon Harris: Cake, blood and what he really thinks of Enda

TheJournal.ie joined Simon Harris on a typical day as the health minister. In a wide-ranging interview he talks about Enda Kenny, the daunting task of his health portfolio and cannabis.

I grabbed some cake. I should be fine.

THAT WAS THE response from Health Minister Simon Harris when asked what he had eaten ahead of giving blood.

It’s lunchtime at the D’Olier Street blood clinic in Dublin and the waiting room is filled with politicians.

Health Minister Simon Harris managed to convince TDs from all parties – Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Independent Alliance – to join him for a blood drive to raise awareness about donation.

Before getting on the bus to go to the clinic, the minister informs the waiting TDs and media that it is his first time giving blood. His handlers nervously look on. The minister has just sat through three hours of the health committee and they want to double-check he has had enough to eat before his donation.

The last thing they want is the minister to pass out and end up on the front pages.

He tells me he managed to grab a slice of cake after attending the health committee. He should be fine.

Flanked by his fellow TDs, many who have walked the halls of Leinster House for many years, it’s a reminder of just how far Harris has come in such a short time.

10/11/2016. Politicans Giving Blood Indepdent Alliance TDs Kevin Boxer Moran and Finian McGrath with Health Minister Simon Harris at the D'Olier Street blood donation clinic in Dublin. Source: Sam Boal

Fresh-faced councillor 

I first crossed paths with Harris while working with a local Wicklow newspaper. He was the new, young fresh-faced councillor, eager to make his mark.

However, the new kid on the block did not go down well with some of the veterans on the council.

In one such incident, an argument broke out between Harris and another councillor who wasn’t interested in listening to the “young pup” who was only a wet day on the council.

Harris shot back stating that he was entitled to speak and give his opinion because he was elected just like every other councillor around the table.

Perhaps it was a sign of things to come. Fast forward less than ten years and Harris now finds himself around the Cabinet table.

9/3/2011. New Dail Simon Harris arriving at the Dail for the first sitting of the 31st Dail in 2011. Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

But he wasn’t just given any ministerial portfolio, he was given health. Often referred to in political circles as the poisoned chalice, the health brief has defeated many a minister.

During the government negotiations, there was a lot of talk about who would get what. Harris was earmarked to take social protection, but in a surprise move, he was landed with health.

6/5/2016. New Cabinet President Of Ireland Michael D Higgins TD, Minister for Health Simon Harrisand Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Source: Sam Boal

A daunting task 

It came as a shock to the minister when the Taoiseach Enda Kenny asked if he would take it on.

“It wasn’t necessarily the area I necessarily thought I was going to be minister,” he says, adding that he did find it daunting.

“I found the last six months to be really intense and that is not a complaint, there are just so many different elements. It was daunting, absolutely, and it is daunting. I mean this is people’s lives, it is very serious, there are 105,000 people working in the health service, every family in Ireland will need the health service at some point.”

In his first few weeks in the role, Harris took a hard-line with pharma companies telling the HSE to cut the amount it pays out on drugs after lengthy negotiations with pharmaceutical companies failed to make adequate savings.

He says he wanted to make medicines more affordable, and taking a hard-line brought them back around the table.

The Wicklow TD says it was “essential” he take that line, “because when the Oireachtas gives the HSE and minister the ability to do these things, I think it is important every now and again that you do stand your ground”.

2/9/2016. Special Health Minister Simon Harris Source: Sam Boal

Taking over from Leo 

Since taking over the department from his predecessor Leo Varadkar, Harris has made a few changes to how things are done, such as holding weekly meetings with the HSE.

I got the idea after I read Rudy Giuliani’s book on leadership. I read it a long time ago, it’s about the time he was mayor of New York. He introduced a daily meeting so he would bring in all the heads of the city, different divisions on a daily basis for an 8 o’clock meeting – and they knew then that if he asked them to do something, they knew they would have to see him again tomorrow. So it kept that level of productivity, the weekly meeting is my version of that.
So much can happen in health within a month – you do need that weekly sort of contact.

Speaking of leadership – does he have any ambitions to take over as leader of the Fine Gael Party.

I am very busy at the moment being minister for health. Any politician that tells you that they lack ambition in terms of career advancement aren’t usually telling the truth. I try and be frank in my engagement with the media and people, so of course I have ambitions to contribute in every way that I can.

27/1/2016. Financial Seminars Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Health Minister Simon Harris. Source: RollingNews.ie

Only kind words for Enda 

The health minister only has kind words to say about his leader. Not to bite the hand that feeds you seems to be the policy adopted by Harris, who knows that he is only relatively new in this game of top-level politics and has been given a substantial amount of responsibility.

It’s also no surprise due to the fact that Kenny was instrumental in getting Harris to join the Fine Gael party after seeing his work with the autism support group he had set up in his native Greystones.

Harris says his family were not affiliated to any party, and prior to making a decision to join Fine Gael, he was a floater who was considering Fianna Fáil and Labour. His ties to the Taoiseach go back a long way.

He recently spotted a much younger version of himself in the RTE documentary on the Taoiseach, entitled Enda, broadcast earlier this month.

“I had that awful shot of me in the background – the lanky teenager with the oversized t-shirt. Little did I think that ten years later I would be in his Cabinet.”

He has been very supportive to me. I think Enda has a great ability, he is sort of egoless which is rare in politicians and he has always given people opportunities to play their part and I have been one of those people.
The Taoiseach has given me a huge opportunity at a very young age to try and make a difference in a department that directly impacts on the lives of people.

The RTÉ documentary stated that none of the Taoiseach’s colleagues have ever felt like they really know the real Enda Kenny. So, does Harris feel he knows him well?

10/11/2016. Politicans Giving Blood Simon Harris briefing the media at the D'Olier Street blood clinic in Dublin. Source: Sam Boal

Deep and meaningfuls 

“You don’t have the opportunity to sit down with him and have many deep and meaningful conversations, but where he is readily available is on all issues relating to policy matters. As issues arise in health he has been so supportive,” says Harris.

I feel he is an extremely good colleague, a good leader – very supportive in the work that I have to do. He is extremely busy, we are all extremely busy. I know how busy I am so I can only imagine how busy he is.
I often find it frustrating that the public perception of Enda Kenny isn’t the Enda Kenny I know.
I know Enda to be egoless, so hard-working, ability to put a team together, to let people play their part, courteous, polite, determined, sometimes I am not sure it is portrayed like that. I think very highly of him.

Despite soundings and manoeuvres from some of his Cabinet colleagues on when the Taoiseach should step aside, Harris says whenever Kenny wants to go is the time he will take his leave.

I am happy for the Taoiseach to remain as Taoiseach for as long as he wishes to. He has been the only Fine Gael leader that I have served under and in that sense any sort of change would be quite significant. There’s a way to go on that, there could be a few more twists and turns yet.

23/6/206. Misuse of Drugs Bills Health Simon Harris and Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald. Source: Sam Boal

Previously to being a TD, he worked with Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald. Does he have any preference (other than himself) as to who might take over? Perhaps his old boss?

Harris says he will consider the matter when it arises. He says there is lots of talent in the parliamentary party.

“There are lots of people that are eligible to be considered at the time it arises, and it will depend when the timing is, it will depend on a variety of factors. It is not obsessing us all on a daily basis, but I think the list of definitive candidates is yet to be decided. I think there are lots of people that might have an interest.”

But it is Harris that is leading today’s posse of TDs at the blood bank. The minister does his bit to camera – speaking about blood donation, his outrage at the HSE memo that was circulated this week, while also being asked about abortion and the Citizen’s Assembly.

His views on abortion 

“In relation to my own personal view on this situation, I have described the current Constitutional situation as unacceptable and unsatisfactory. In relation to my own view as minister of health it greatly saddens and frustrates me that women of this country and their partners find themselves in this situation… I would like to see change. I have made the point that my generation have never had a say on this issue and I would like my generation to have its say.”

10/11/2016. Politicans Giving Blood Simon Harris supporting Kevin Boxer Moran as he gives blood. Source: Sam Boal

Other controversial issues have also been raised with Harris this week.

He could be staring down the barrel of strike action from nurses, but he sticks to the government line that any deal struck must be done collectively and within the Lansdowne Agreement.

“There is no new money. The Budget for 2017 is the Budget and any additional resources that have to be found have to come out of existing budgets,” he says.

The minister also asked for the government’s policy on medicinal cannabis to be reviewed.

I feel very strongly that I would like to see change in this area, but also I feel a great responsibility that change has to be made on medical advice…

When asked what his view is on full legalisation of cannabis use, Harris says:

Personally, I don’t in any way support the decriminalisation of cannabis. I think this is a very separate and distinct issue about men and women young and old in Ireland today who are in pain, who believed there may be medicinal properties in cannabis products that could act and help alleviate their pain and suffering and alleviate their symptoms.

Crohn’s disease

While his colleagues, Helen McEntee, Kate O’Connoll, Louise O’Reilly, Jack Chambers and Kevin Boxer Moran give blood, the minister is told that he is excluded from giving blood as he has Crohn’s disease.

The illness causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive system.

Earlier in the day he had joked that it wouldn’t be ideal if he had brought a bus load of politicians and media to the clinic, only to be told he could not give blood.

“Oh well,” he said. “It’s really about raising awareness, which I think we did,” he said, not appearing to want to discuss his condition further.

He stands beside his colleagues, having a joke and a laugh.

“Is that blue blood,” he says jokingly to Boxer Moran as he lies on the bed. “Give it time,” he tells the Independent Alliance member with a smile.

10/11/2016 Health Committees Minister for Health, Simon Harris, and the Director General of the Health Service Executive, Tony O Brien on Thursday. Source: Leah Farrell

Harris thanks his fellow TDs for coming along. He rushes back to Leinster House for an afternoon of meetings.

The ministerial row – the long corridor where all the ministers offices are, is busy today.

Ministers Bruton, Coveney and Ross, as well as Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald are shuffling up and down the black and white chequered floor all afternoon.

Harris sticks his head out of his office and welcomes his first visitors – a group of consultant doctors who want to show the minister what they have been doing to lower tackle bed capacity issues in their hospital. They think it could be implemented around the country.

A sandwich is handed in to the minister before his next meeting with the Laura Lynn group, who tell the minister about the services they provide to support parents through some of the toughest times.

It’s getting close to 7pm, and Harris’ last meeting with another minister has been cancelled.

The minister with the largest health budget in the history of the state says he is trying a “hands on” approach to his role.

With all successive ministers finding it difficult to bring in lasting reforms, he has some task ahead.

For this evening though, it’s home to Greystones to get some rest.

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