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Simon Harris: The five career moves that led him to the taoiseach’s office

From playwright prodigy to the TikTok taoiseach, the Wicklow politician has scraped through tight corners in politics to become Fine Gael leader

His sudden rise to power may have surprised the public, his party and even himself, but a glimpse into the past of Ireland’s Taoiseach-designate Simon Harris reveals clues about the road that led here.

Labelled a playwright “prodigy” at the age of 13, he was a political activist at 15 and a leadership candidate at 17, so the new Fine Gael leader has been restless and ambitious since his earliest days.

Next Tuesday Harris is, at the age of 37, set to become the youngest taoiseach in the history of the State. Before then, the Wicklow TD will stand before the Fine Gael faithful at the party’s ardfheis in Galway this weekend facing huge and immediate challenges

The local and European elections loom in just over 60 days, with a general election on the political agenda in less than a year. With an ever-growing list of retiring Fine Gael TDs and MEPs, he faces a serious loss of what have been established vote-getters. He will have to contend with being party leader and taoiseach just as the election cycle kicks off. The tasks ahead are immense. The public will be watching carefully as he takes power with many still wondering: who is Simon Harris and what does he stand for?

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1. From drama student to political activist

Harris began plotting at the age of 13, though not yet in the political sense. Not long out of primary school, he wrote and directed a play he entitled On The Run, a production that dealt with issues such as alcoholism, child abuse and death. Abbey playwright Bernard Farrell looked over the script.

“He told me I would be the new Shakespeare,” Harris said at the time, “but I think he was just being nice.”

Offstage, he acquired a taste for managing a cast of characters, telling a local newspaper: “My mobile phone never stops ringing and I don’t know how many calls I’ve had today.”

His time with Fianna Fáil was fleeting. By the following year, he had joined Young Fine Gael (YFG) and was eviscerating Fianna Fáil’s TDs

His parents Mary, a special needs assistant, and Bart Harris, a taxi driver, watched on as Simon and his younger sister Gemma filled St Patrick’s Hall in Greystones over the play’s five-night run.

It was around this time that his younger brother, Adam, was diagnosed with Asperger’s. Aggrieved at the lack of supports for people on the autism spectrum, Harris transformed from drama student to political activist. Coming from an apolitical family, he approached Fianna Fáil’s Dick Roche who had been helpful in the past.

Harris later canvassed for Roche in the run-up to the 2002 general election, handing out leaflets, getting his first taste of door-to-door retail politics as a 15-year-old student.

His time with Fianna Fáil was fleeting. By the following year, he had joined Young Fine Gael (YFG) and was eviscerating Fianna Fáil’s TDs in his home constituency of Wicklow in public criticisms.

“When the electorate voted for Dick Roche and Joe Jacob, is this what they expected? No, the voters were misled, and the voters were given lists of promises, all broken,” the then 16-year-old told the Bray People newspaper.

One former YFG member who knew Harris during this time said he would “turn up to meetings in suits three times too big for him” and that he “already knew how to work a room”, having set up the Triple A Alliance, an autism awareness charity. A teenage Harris appeared on RTÉ's Open House to speak about his work. Afterwards, co-host Marty Whelan described him as an “incredible, articulate young man”.

By December 2003, having just turned 17, Harris became the youngest ever member to join YFG’s national executive.

It was around this time that he began to learn the communication skills he would rely on during a global pandemic. In early 2004, fresh from being selected to travel abroad for the Rotary Club youth leadership awards, Harris won the best speaker award on the debating team of St David’s Secondary School, his school in Greystones.

Local Independent councillor Tom Fortune remembers handing over the prize to Harris in a room full of councillors and saying: “Watch it – he’ll be doing your job soon enough.”

“I remember watching the debate and thinking his communication skills were off the charts. It was obvious to me that he was born to be a politician,” Fortune recalls.

By the summer of 2004, Harris had left secondary school having been awarded student of the year. “He is a talented student who always displayed qualities well beyond his years,” the school said.

While most people his age were fretting over first relationships, Harris was operating like a mini-politician in the classroom. He did, according to an acquaintance of the time, have his crushes but even the break-ups were handled politically; he is said to have offered an ex-girlfriend a giant teddy bear when they split.

He enrolled on a journalism and French course at the Dublin Institute of Technology but would later drop out.

In 2007, an advertisement for a job with Fine Gael’s Frances Fitzgerald brought a foothold in Leinster House and a political mentor.

2. Stepping on to the political stage

Fitzgerald, now an outgoing MEP, was the leader of the opposition in the Seanad when she advertised for an assistant. She met a 20-year-old Harris in Buswells Hotel.

“I was getting a team together. I got a very quick email from Simon. I hadn’t come across him. He was dead keen to work in Leinster House,” she recalls.

‘I would be on the phone to him every single morning at the crack of dawn and we would be discussing what the issue of the day was and figuring out how to approach it’

—  Frances Fitzgerald, recalling when Simon Harris was her assistant

“I asked him if he was going to finish his journalism course and he said: ‘No, I really want to work here.’ I was very struck by him. He was motivated. He liked the business of politics even at that age.”

For four years, Harris and Fitzgerald worked closely together.

“I would be on the phone to him every single morning at the crack of dawn and we would be discussing what the issue of the day was and figuring out how to approach it,” she says.

While working with Fitzgerald, he decided to enter the fray and ran in the 2009 local elections, topping the poll in Greystones with 3,119 votes, almost double the votes won by the next candidate, Tom Fortune, who only five years earlier was talking up Harris’s political promise.

A present-day member of Fine Gael remembers going to Wicklow during Harris’s election campaign and meeting him following his 10th time canvassing the same area.

“I thought I was going to change the world,” Harris later said of his time as councillor.

He quickly realised how little influence he wielded as a local politician and, after two years, decided to run in the 2011 general election. Throughout that campaign, he spoke about Fianna Fáil’s financial failures and the need to get the country “back on track”.

He also wrote to anti-abortion groups telling them: “I am happy and proud to assure you I am pro-life.” It was a position he would later change.

Amid the economic turmoil of that post-crash era, Fianna Fáil was wiped out in the election, with Fine Gael winning 76 seats, becoming the largest party in the Dáil. Harris won one of them.

3. From Baby of the Dáil to the Cabinet table

As the youngest TD in the 31st Dáil, Harris’s maiden speech was to nominate (enthusiastically) his party leader Enda Kenny as taoiseach.

He would go on to become a regular contributor to Dáil debates but rarely stepped beyond the party line. There were plenty of references in his earliest contributions to “making work pay” and supporting gardaí.

He became a member of the Public Accounts Committee and showed signs of being a financial hawk, frequently decrying auction politics. In health debates, he spoke about bureaucracy “running riot” and the need for accountability in the HSE. On migration, he called for a humane approach while also saying the application system needed to be sharpened up. In private Fine Gael meetings, he spoke of having “grave difficulty” with the idea of legislating for abortion.

After three years of building his national profile, it was internal polling that would give him a leg up on to the ministerial ladder.

When former Irish Farmers Association president John Bryan dropped out of the race for the 2014 European elections, Fine Gael polling found Harris outperforming more established party members, cementing his place on the party’s European ticket alongside Seán Kelly and Deirdre Clune.

He ran an energetic campaign, making early use of social media with his #HarrisForEurope hashtag, a harbinger of his later effective use of platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.

“He was supposed to be a sweeper candidate – he was never really meant to win – but he did far better in the media debates than any of us expected. By the time the campaign was over, even though he wasn’t successful, Enda had decided to offer him something,” a senior Fine Gael figure recalls.

Clune, a Fine Gael senator, won the last European Parliament seat for Ireland South ahead of Harris in the May 2014 election, but his performance in the campaign did not go unnoticed.

Six weeks later, Kenny, following a Cabinet reshuffle, installed Harris as minister of state at the Department of Finance, giving him responsibility for the Office of Public Works, public procurement, and international banking.

His time in the role was largely uneventful, though the OPW came under attack during flooding in the winter of 2015-16 when it emerged that €13 million budgeted for flood-relief works in 2015 went unspent.

The bigger tests – and controversies – would come later, after Harris was parachuted into the Department of Health in May 2016, promoting him to the Cabinet table.

4. Surviving the Department of Health

His performance as Minister for Health was extremely mixed. “He was nearly shaking when he was told he had the job,” one colleague remembers.

On the one hand, he was celebrating personal milestones, getting engaged to his now-wife Caoimhe Wade and turning 30; on the other, there were half a million people on hospital waiting lists and Fine Gael election promises around free GP care lying in tatters. By January 2017, patients were turning against him during hospital visits in the full glare of the media. The following month, a leaked WhatsApp message written by Fine Gael Cabinet colleague Charlie Flanagan said Harris wanted to “get out of health”.

In April 2018, Vicky Phelan, who died in 2022 – took to the steps of the High Court and told of her anger at not being informed about a 2014 review of her smear test. Her case exposed a more widespread failure to share the results of an audit of past tests. Harris aligned himself very early on with Phelan, phoning her when he learned of the news. His offer for women to avail of an out-of-cycle smear test was, however, viewed to be ill-judged and led to significant backlogs. HSE chief executive Tony O’Brien would later describe Harris as behaving “like a frightened little boy” during this time.

The political fortunes of Harris would swing again when, in January 2018, it was announced that a referendum would be held to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Having professed himself pro-life in the lead up to the 2011 election, Harris said he changed his position after hearing the stories of women who had to travel because of fatal foetal abnormalities. He was also affected by the case of Savita Halappanavar who died in 2012 after a septic miscarriage, during which she asked several times for an abortion but was refused.

“He did a lot of background linking-in with the NGOs; he explained what was at stake clearly, and he managed the internal party tensions very well. He kept all of the plates spinning,” said one person involved in the campaign.

Following the landslide Yes vote, abortion services were rolled out for the first time in the history of the State in January 2019.

‘He went from being the reason for the general election – and a failure in his department – to the nation’s most trusted politician within a matter of weeks, all thanks to his handling of a global pandemic’

—  Unnamed Fine Gael TD on Harris in early 2020

Harris’s popularity did not last.

In February 2019, he survived a motion of no confidence after a series of controversies erupted over ballooning costs at the national children’s hospital. He survived, but another motion was threatened that December. Perhaps knowing that the numbers were not there, taoiseach Leo Varadkar called a general election for February 2020.

As parties negotiated the formation of a new government, Harris – as caretaker minister – was handed an unexpected second act as minister for health with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It is actually astounding how he turned it around. He went from being the reason for the general election – and a failure in his department – to the nation’s most trusted politician within a matter of weeks, all thanks to his handling of a global pandemic,” a Fine Gael TD says.

Harris made clever use of platforms such as Instagram and TikTok to communicate with younger voters, beaming his message of being “in this together” directly to the computer and phone screens of people locked up at home during the pandemic while humanising the work of a politician in crisis mode.

His delegation of many aspects of the handling of the crisis to Nphet – the National Public Health Emergency Team of doctors, scientists and various experts that advised Government – meant he could avoid the direct public criticisms of the most contentious and divisive decisions of the health emergency. The lack of readiness and surveillance in nursing homes was a standout failure of the early stages of the pandemic.

5. From a new department to party leadership

In June 2020, Harris became Minister for Further and Higher Education, a newly created role in which he travelled the country renaming the old third-level network of “institutes of technology” into “technological universities” with much fanfare from his tiny new department.

“He was put in there because he was a threat,” one source says.

But Harris used the position – and the travel it brought – to his political advantage, meeting Fine Gael councillors and building support among the party’s grassroots across the country.

He made his leadership ambitions clear after a stint in the Department of Justice, from December 2022 to June 2023, covering for his Cabinet colleague Helen McEntee while she was on maternity leave.

“I don’t rule out anything,” he told The Irish Times as he was about to leave Justice.

A party colleague says of Harris’s ascent to the leadership of Fine Gael unchallenged following Varadkar’s surprise resignation last month: “He has been planning for this since the day Leo became leader.”

Now, days before he becomes taoiseach, Harris may feel like that 13-year-old again, struggling to manage an onslaught of phone calls and a cast of characters in the wings awaiting news of their new roles.

The next political act will undoubtedly be the most dramatic of Harris’s career.

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