The Irish Times view on the Fine Gael leadership: a missed opportunity

Simon Harris’s energy will help. But the much more basic question is what Fine Gael will stand for under his leadership

Fine Gael has made its first error of the post-Leo Varadkar era by not having a contest to choose a successor to the party’s outgoing leader. The rapid rallying of the parliamentary party behind Simon Harris brings to mind the selection by Fianna Fáil of Brian Cowen to succeed Bertie Ahern in 2008. Cowen became taoiseach within days of taking the party leadership; Harris is almost certain to follow the same path. Then as now, a party’s elected representatives were convinced there was one outstanding candidate and selected him very quickly, without engaging in any serious debate on policy or on the direction they wished their party to take.

Harris would benefit from a contest. While he has been ubiquitous for more than a decade, there is a great deal that remains opaque about his world view. It was striking that all of the Fine Gael TDs or Senators who endorsed his candidacy this week spoke only of his personal qualities – diligence, ambition, hard work, strong communications skills – but not once about his views or any broader shift his leadership might bring.

Harris has been an admirably strong advocate for some of the most vulnerable in society and he is an exceptional communicator, but he is also untested in several areas. On the biggest issues that a taoiseach must handle, including the economy and Northern Ireland, his experience is limited and little is known of his opinions. He has acquitted himself well in the relatively relaxing Department of Higher Education, but his record as Minister for Health was, like that of most holders of the office, decidedly mixed. His brief period as stand-in minister for justice left him little opportunity to record any policy achievements there.

A new leader will give Fine Gael a lift, at least in the short-term, and enable it to re-position itself for the electoral challenges ahead, starting with the local and European elections in June. But the party would be mistaken to think a change of leader is the solution to its problems. Any party in its 13th year in power would show signs of fatigue; Fine Gael certainly does, and the new leader’s biggest challenge is to reinvigorate it.

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Harris’s energy will help. But the much more basic question is what Fine Gael will stand for under his leadership. Varadkar was known all his career as a centre-right, fiscally conservative Christian Democrat – and that is where he remained as Taoiseach. But he also reacted to changes in society, and in his own views, by drawing Fine Gael towards more liberal social positions than many of his predecessors. Does the party continue on that track, or does it repudiate Varadkarism, whether in favour of social democracy or to more openly occupy a centre-right niche that some of its TDs feel it has vacated? These are fundamental questions that will shape Fine Gael’s fortunes – and perhaps decide the course of the next general election.

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