Simon Harris as Minister for Health: the challenge awaits

A lack of track record made Harris a puzzling choice as Minister for Health, but he hasn’t been easily daunted in the past

Minister for Health Simon Harris is Fine Gael “through and through”, unlike Leo Varadkar, who is regarded with suspicion by the blue-blooded wing of the party. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

Minister for Health Simon Harris is Fine Gael “through and through”, unlike Leo Varadkar, who is regarded with suspicion by the blue-blooded wing of the party. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

 

Puzzlement was, arguably, the principal reaction to the appointment of Simon Harris as Minister for Health.

It wasn’t just the surprise nature of the appointment, which wasn’t foreseen by any of the pundits before Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced his Cabinet. The new man’s lack of a track record in the area left many scratching their heads over what his appointment might mean for the health sector.

Nonetheless, there are some straws in the wind that hint at where Harris’s interests lie and what tack he may take in the biggest challenge of his political life.

The first and most obvious thing about him is his youth; at 29 years of age, this Cabinet virgin is a full three years younger than Leo Varadkar was when he was given ministerial responsibility, and six years younger than Varadkar was when he crossed the threshold of Hawkins House.

Only a 20-something could have told the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, as Harris did during one stormy meeting, to “chillax – I think everyone needs to take a step back here”.

“All the young people know what ‘chillax’ is,” he told the Dáil during Leaders’ Questions the following morning.

His appointment sees a crucial responsibility thrust on to young shoulders, in a sector populated by so many long-established “big beasts” and vested interests. There is nothing, however, in his past performance to show he might be easily daunted by this. Harris was, after all, one of the few members of the last Government to show some mettle in debating issues such as water charges effectively in the media.

The other thing to know about Harris is that is he is Fine Gael “through and through”, unlike Leo Varadkar, who is regarded with suspicion by the blue-blooded wing of the party. He can, therefore, be expected to toe the party line faithfully and is unlikely to come out with the kind of off-message comments that are the hallmark of Varadkar.

Harris wasn’t involved in the drafting of Fine Gael’s health policies, which include the abolition of the HSE and the implementation of universal healthcare (not, any longer, universal health insurance), or the health proposals in the Programme for Government. He may therefore wish, after he has read himself into the brief, to tweak these policies according to his personal preferences.

He profiled as something of a fiscal hawk in the Dáil, particularly through his interventions at the Public Accounts Committee. The HSE, with its perennial runaway finances, will therefore set him a challenge in the new job. The voracious demands for funding in health turned Varadkar from a free-market fiscal conservative into a resource-hungry “socialist” – or nearly anyway.

Forceful

At the Public Accounts Committee he was forceful in raising concerns about payments to senior staff and pension issues in St Vincent’s Hospital. That institution is now locked in a row with the National Maternity Hospital over its proposed transfer to the St Vincent’s campus. This is likely to be one of the first major issues the new minister has to resolve.

One obvious shortcoming is that he has never had a “real job” outside the political system. From Greystones, Co Wicklow, he joined Young Fine Gael at the age of 16 and steadily rose through the party ranks.

A great-uncle was a councillor in Dún Laoghaire but his parents were not party political. He studied journalism and French at DIT but failed to finish his degree as his political ambitions grew, it has been previously reported.

His first job was working for current Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, which gave him the inside track on Leinster House. Elected to the Dáil as a 24-year-old in 2011, he was selected by Fine Gael to nominate Enda Kenny for Taoiseach, and was appointed a Minister of State three years later.

He has worked tirelessly as a disability advocate, according to his website, and through this work has gained first-hand meaningful understanding of the issues involved.

Autism is a related area of interest, sparked by his young brother’s diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. Apart from this, he appears to carry little baggage in health, which will stand him well over the coming years.

Policy drift

Ultimately, his fate may be decided by external events. After the chaos of the James Reilly years, and Varadkar’s short tenure, health really needs a safe pair of hands to mind the shop for some years.

The immediate problems are obvious – overcrowding in emergency departments, long waiting list, soaring demand and huge cost overruns – but there are other, less apparent problems. The structure of the health service is a mess, there is huge organisational and policy drift and Ireland’s unique mix of public and private sector medicine is attracting more questions than ever.

A young, first-time minister in an insecure minority Government is poorly placed to tackle all these issues. Even if he is minded to roll the ball uphill, Harris may find that he is given neither the time nor the political stability to make his political mark.

He should not, however, be faulted for trying.

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