Friday, May 24, 2024

Simon Harris: Who is the man expected to be Ireland’s next prime minister?

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Simon Harris has said being a dad is “the most important job I have, and ever will have”.

In which case, the father-of-two is about to start the second most important job in his life.

The path to power is now clear for Mr Harris, a softly-spoken rising star equipped with a relentless political hunger.

Image:
Mr Harris pictured with Leo Varadkar. Pic: PA

The 37-year-old minister for further and higher education will snatch the title of Ireland’s youngest-ever PM from his predecessor Leo Varadkar, who was 38 when he bagged the top job.

Harris doesn’t turn 38 until 17 October. His has always been a story of achievement at a young age.

Hailing from Greystones in County Wicklow – a scenic seaside commuter town south of Dublin – Fine Gael’s Mr Harris was elected to Wicklow County Council in 2009 with the highest percentage vote of any councillor.

Just two years later, he won election to the Dail, the Irish parliament’s lower house, taking the third seat in the Wicklow constituency. He was 25, and the youngest member of the parliament.

He became a junior minister in 2014 after an unsuccessful bid to become a MEP.

Simon Harris, then-finance minister of state, in 2015. Pic: Reuters
Image:
Mr Harris in 2015. Pic: Reuters

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Always considered destined for a rapid rise within Fine Gael, he was elevated to the cabinet at the age of 29 when he was appointed minister for health by the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2016.

The health portfolio has long been considered a poisoned chalice in Irish politics, but an ambitious Mr Harris understood it could also be a springboard to higher office.

As minister for health, he became a leading figure in the seismic 2018 abortion referendum, pushing hard for a yes vote. He later revealed his wife was pregnant with their first child at the time.

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Privately, he said, he was “conscious that we were about to start a family”, as he advocated for Irish women’s right for termination.

He had to survive a motion of no confidence brought against him in 2019 over the spiralling cost of Ireland’s still-unfinished National Children’s Hospital.

Then came COVID-19, and the minister for health became a figurehead for the Irish government’s efforts to combat the virus, appearing almost daily on the nation’s televisions.

Simon Harris was Ireland's health minister during the coronavrius pandemic. File pic: PA
Image:
Mr Harris was Ireland’s health minister during the COVID pandemic. File pic: PA

Just when his star appeared ascendant, he suffered a setback. A move from the Department of Health to his current role overseeing third-level education was seen as an effective demotion for Mr Harris, but few doubted his time would come.

His ambition and hunger has long been understood within the party.

He appears to have spent the last number of years shoring up support for his leadership designs, not just among backbenchers and senators, but also councillors.

Mild-mannered, with a bookish demeanour emphasised by greying hair he freely admits was a premature arrival, he is considered one of Fine Gael’s best media performers, if not the best.

He enthusiastically embraces social media, sometimes to his own detriment.

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A committed family man, Mr Harris married Caoimhe Wade in 2017, and the couple have two young children, Saoirse and Cillian.

He continues to live in Greystones, and considers himself “lucky” to live in Co Wicklow.

The locals will most likely be seeing a bit less of him in the weeks and months ahead.

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