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From 'young pup' to Taoiseach, how Simon Harris TikTok-ed his way to the top

The Wicklow TD has hoovered up the support of his party members.

FROM A YOUNG age, Simon Harris was making waves in politics. Elected to the Wicklow County Council aged just 23, he was called a “young pup” by one Fianna Fáil councillor and told to pipe down during one exchange.

The comment that he was only on the council a wet day didn’t go down too well with the would-be Taoiseach at the time.

Though young, Harris had strong opinions about his home county and he wasn’t afraid to share them.

The Wicklow TD might still fall into the category of ‘young pup’ as he is set to become the the youngest Taoiseach this country has ever had, at age 37.

After Leo Varadkar’s whirlwind resignation, the focus went to who would succeed him. The first name that was mentioned around Leinster House was Simon Harris.

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

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

minister-for-further-and-higher-education-simon-harris-arriving-for-a-cabinet-meeting-in-avondale-house-co-wicklow-picture-date-wednesday-september-6-2023 Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Harris, a father of two, and a native to the well-to-do area of Greystones, has been described by his party colleagues as “energetic” and “a great communicator”. 

Minister Heather Humphreys, who bowed out of the competition, and put her support behind Harris today, spoke about his “vision” and how he would “reset the dial” for Fine Gael.

Was the dial broken under Fine Gael?

A few TDs have shirked away when that question was put to them today by The Journal.  

Media-savvy politician

A media-savvy and personable politician who is well-versed on social media sites, the minister is often seen being curralled by his advisers after an announcement to pose or speak to camera for whatever Instagram and TikTok post is needed. 

His work as local councillor wasn’t his first involvement in politics.

It began when he established an Autism support and lobby group in County Wicklow to seek to give a voice to people living with Autism and their families.

On his website, it states in his profile that this was where he learned “first-hand” about the issues affecting people with disabilities.

He went on to be work for former Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald when she was a senator, and after his work as a councillor, he was elected to the Dáil as its youngest TD in 2011.

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Since those early years, Harris 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.

Harris has never been shy to speak about his leadership ambitions, stating that he wanted to be Taoiseach.

His maiden speech in the Dáil 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.

Controversies in health 

The health brief is often described as a poisoned chalice for politicians, and Harris did not escape from it unscathed.

Harris faced issues such as the ownership of the National Maternity Hospital, the spiralling cost of the National Children’s Hospital, a controversy around Ireland’s cervical cancer screening programme as well as failed promises to reduce wait times for children waiting for scoliosis surgery

In 2019, Harris told the Dáil he sincerely apologised for not adding further detail when asked about the costs of the construction of the National Children’s Hospital.

He survived a motion of no-confidence over the matter which was tabled by Sinn Féin. 

In the same year, Harris found himself in more controversy when it was revealed the CervicalCheck team wrote to the minister asking him to end the offer of free smear rechecks, as it was putting pressure on the healthcare system.

While there have been controversies in his career, Harris received praise after the public voted to liberalise abortion laws in a 2018 referendum.

Campaigners viewed Harris a strong voice for the Yes campaign and at Dublin Castle, the crowds chanted his name after the referendum result, much to the dislike of Varadkar. 

health-minister-simon-harris-left-and-taoiseach-leo-varadkar-right-wave-at-crowds-as-they-celebrate-at-dublin-castle-after-the-results-of-the-referendum-on-the-8th-amendment-of-the-irish-constitut Crowds cheering at Dublin Castle at the referendum result to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

In the February 2020 general election, Harris was returned on the 15th count and remained as Health Minister in what would end up being his biggest test to date.

In the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the country was thrust into crisis-mode.

Harris urged people to wear face coverings and adhere to new rules, but was also criticised for an absence of planning for nursing homes.

He told The Journal in an interview that the country needed to find a way to grieve their lost loved ones, and floated the idea of a memorial day. 

Though he has been commended as a good communicator, he did make some gaffes, such as 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”.

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In a Cabinet reshuffle in December 2022, he was appointed as minister for 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. 

He put a particular focus on apprenticeships, by ramping up the number of offer to students and spoke out about ending the ‘points race’ of the Leaving Certificate

Harris also spoke out about the need to end the “snobby attitude that the only way to progress in life is to go to university”. 

Declaring that he wants to be the next leader of Fine Gael this evening, Harris described himself as an “accidental politician” stating that he got into politics through activism and advocacy. 

Always one to know a good sound bite and headline fodder, Harris told RTÉ News this evening: “I’m in, I want to be the next leader of Fine Gael. I’m ready to step up and I’m ready to serve.”

He said he is ready to partake in a contest, if someone throws their hat in the ring before Monday, but added that his aim is to reconnect with with his party and “get back to core principles”. 

Harris said any leadership change is a moment of renewal and an opportunity for fresh energy and new ideas. Harris said he knew how challenging the current period is for people in Ireland, stating that he wants to bring “renewed energy” to the role of An Taoiseach. 

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