The Irish Times view on the new Taoiseach: Harris must show he has substance

He will need to move beyond the purely performative to have any chance of success

After the back-slapping and bonhomie of last weekend’s Fine Gael ardfheis, it was down to serious constitutional business for Simon Harris today. His election as Taoiseach and the Cabinet reshuffle that followed mark the arrival of a new and untested figure into the country’s highest political office.

The comfortable majority of 19 with which Harris was elected sends a strong signal that this Government, despite its slim majority, remains in control of its own destiny, including over the question of when to call a general election. So the new Taoiseach is faced with a two-fold task: to steer the three-party coalition safely down its final straight and to lift his own party’s standing among undecided or persuadable voters.

A striking feature of Harris’s rapid ascent is how few substantive achievements he has had to show along the way. His eight years in Cabinet have not included significant economic or financial portfolios. An impressive performance during the early months of the pandemic do not fully obscure an otherwise underwhelming tenure in the Department of Health. Nor has he had the opportunity to articulate a full vision of Ireland’s place on the international stage, in particular its relationship with the EU and the post-Brexit UK. It remains to be seen how well-developed are his positions on the delicate state of political affairs in Northern Ireland.

What does Simon Harris stand for? His performance since he became leader has done little to answer the question. The callow banalities in which he indulged in his ardfheis speech may have elicited whoops from the party faithful, but did little to suggest that here was a politician of substance. A vow to increase the number of homes built in the State to 250,000 units over five years contradicted everything this Government had previously said and smacked of unseriousness.

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His maiden speech as Taoiseach, while also short on detail, was more sober and reflective of the gravity of the occasion and the challenges which lie ahead.

His promotion of Peter Burke and Patrick O’Donovan to Cabinet brings some measure of refreshment and renewal to the Fine Gael team. But the party’s heavy emphasis on the energy of its new leader only amplifies its core problem, the fatigue which inevitably accompanies 13 consecutive years in power.

Prior to the announcement of his elevation, Burke had told the Dáil that he and his Fine Gael colleagues knew what Simon Harris was capable of. The country as a whole cannot say the same. The new Taoiseach now has an opportunity to change that. He will be constrained by a tight timeframe and the requirements of coalition government, but he must still swiftly find a way to move beyond the purely performative if he is to have any chance of success.

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