Simon Harris on course to be Irish leader after party election

Simon Harris is on course to replace Leo Varadkar as Ireland’s taoiseach (prime minister)

Simon Harris has been confirmed as the new leader of Irish political party Fine Gael, paving the way for the 37-year-old to become Ireland’s youngest taoiseach (prime minister).

Mr Harris, an Irish government minister, was the only candidate to seek the party leadership.

He is replacing Leo Varadkar, who announced on Wednesday he was stepping down as party leader and taoiseach.

Mr Harris said becoming Fine Gael leader was “the honour of my life”.

He thanked the party and those that elected him for trusting him, adding that he will “repay that trust in hard work”.

Mr Harris later told the members that “this is a moment for Fine Gael to reset, it is a moment for Fine Gael to reconnect”.

Mr Harris is not expected to making any final decisions on his cabinet until the Dáil (Irish parliament) is back on 9 April.

Nominations for the Fine Gael leadership closed at 13:00 local time on Sunday.

He was the only candidate for the position at the close of nominations.

Mr Harris, the Irish further and higher education minister, had a clear run at the top job after other ministers who were viewed as potential competitors ruled themselves out.

Ministers Helen McEntee, Paschal Donohoe and Heather Humphreys were among those to throw their support behind Mr Harris.

What did Simon Harris say about Sinn Féin?

On Sunday, addressing a party convention after his leadership was confirmed, Mr Harris said “challenges never go away – they just change”.

“But they can always be met if we cleave to those fundamental values which have served this nation well – hope, enterprise, equality of opportunity, integrity, security,” he added.

He said those values mean “everything” to him.

“I believe in public service and the power of politics to make a difference and to make people’s lives better,” he said.

With a general Irish election due by March 2025, Mr Harris also hit out at Sinn Féin – the party seen as potentially Fine Gael’s biggest electoral threat.

“Sinn Féin can’t bear to look back over what Fine Gael has achieved since pulling our economy back from the brink,” he said. “Always seeking to denigrate our service in government by denying reality.”

Possibly the biggest cheer of the speech came after Mr Harris said the party “stands for law and order” and referred to the funeral of convicted police officer killer Pearse McAuley last week.

McAuley was jailed for 14 years for the manslaughter of Det Garda Jerry McCabe in 1996, a crime he committed as a member of the Provisional IRA – during the conflict in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin were the IRA’s political wing.

Mr Harris added: “In a week where I saw the tricolour of this republic draped over the coffin of a garda killer, I say shame – let’s take our flag back.”

What did Simon Harris say about Israel and Gaza?

Later, Mr Harris followed his predecessor, Leo Varadkar, in calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

“Fine Gael stands as a party unafraid to speak truth to power about the catastrophe we are witnessing in Gaza and to voice in no uncertain terms the moral outrage of the Irish people.” he said.

“I repeat my calls today for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, the immediate release of all hostages, an end to violence in the Middle East and a political process to bring about a two state solution.”

Reuters Simon Harris embracing his mother Mary with his father BertReutersSimon Harris embraces his mother Mary, accompanied by his father Bert, after Mr Harris was announced leader of Fine Gael

Mr Harris also thanked his family, and paid tribute to his parents, wife Caoimhe and children Saoirse and Cillian.

“My mother used to tell us that success is about liking what you do. “My parents gave up so much and worked so hard for us and today I thank them for that.” he said. Before Mr Harris was confirmed as Fine Gael’s new leader, deputy leader Simon Coveney said Mr Harris will provide “new energy, new ideas, new drive and new togetherness” and that he will have the party’s full support “to give him the maximum chances of success”.

Why was there a leadership contest?

On Wednesday, Leo Varadkar caused shock when he announced he would be stepping down as Fine Gael leader immediately, and would resign as taoiseach as soon as his successor was selected.He said he was resigning for “personal and political reasons” and was “not the best person for the job anymore”.

He also denied any “conspiracy theories” over the decision, telling reporters in Brussels there was no ulterior motive or new job on the cards.

Mr Varadkar’s resignation paved the way for a party leadership contest, but as he heads the current coalition government alongside Fianna Fáil and the Green Party in Dublin, his successor is also expected to take over as taoiseach.

Who is Simon Harris?

Getty Images/NurPhoto Simon HarrisGetty Images/NurPhotoSimon Harris has served as a minister in the Irish cabinet for the past eight years

At 37, Mr Harris is set to make history as Ireland’s youngest taoiseach – taking over the top role a year younger than his predecessor did in 2017.

He first entered the Dáil (lower house of Irish parliament) over a decade ago at the age of 24 as TD (MP) for Wicklow.

Mr Harris has had a rapid rise through the party ranks, landing his first cabinet role, as health minister, five years later in 2016.

In this role, he oversaw the Republic of Ireland’s vote to overturn its abortion ban and the country’s cervical cancer screening scandal.

He also oversaw the initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic, before he was replaced when the new coalition government formed in 2020.

He has since been minister for further and higher education, research, innovation and science, and briefly took on the justice portfolio.

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