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How Simon Harris became the ‘Yes Minister’

The strongest political advocate for repeal was also the abortion referendum’s biggest winner

Cheers and chants greeted Leo Varadkar as he arrived at the InterContinental Dublin, the hotel next to the RDS count centre, last Saturday night. That would normally spell good news for a Taoiseach who had just sealed his place in the history books by steering a difficult abortion-referendum campaign to a safely landed Yes vote. There was just one problem. They were not cheering him or chanting his name.

Varadkar took a step back as the ecstatic volunteers from the Together for Yes campaign moved to embrace their star: “Simon, Simon, Simon.”

This had become a familiar scene for the Taoiseach by this stage of the day. Varadkar had by now realised he was viewed as the Minister for Health's copilot in this successful landing. The pro-choice campaigners who had gathered at the hotel or at Dublin Castle for the referendum result appreciated Varadkar's input, but it was clear they saw Simon Harris as their leader.

We realised early on Simon Harris was one of our strongest assets. He had the commitment, he was the right age and he was completely invested

Ailbhe Smyth, one of the Together for Yes co-ordinators, invited the Taoiseach to address the jubilant crowd. He chose to defer to his colleague. Harris was cheered again as he thanked the crowd for their help in winning the referendum. Varadkar then took to the microphone. He had three points, he said, but the first was "everything [Simon] said", pointing towards the man of the moment. Nervous laughter followed. Varadkar knew he had been outperformed – an unfamiliar and seemingly uncomfortable situation for the Taoiseach.

"There was no engagement with Leo Varadkar," a senior figure in the Together for Yes campaign says. "It became clear to us early on that Simon Harris was of more value to us. When we began this process we thought we should promote the journey-takers, like Simon Coveney and others, but we realised early on Simon Harris was one of the strongest assets we had. He had the level of commitment, he was the right age and he was completely invested in it."

What might have been

As Harris continues to draw praise it is easy to forget what might have been. Twelve months ago he was staring into the political abyss when he backed the wrong horse in the Fine Gael leadership contest.

He was the only senior Cabinet Minister to support Simon Coveney in the race to replace Enda Kenny. As the Varadkar camp grew larger Harris dug his heels in, and his few friends in the party deserted him for the winning side. When Coveney was outnumbered by his rival, Harris’s future in a Government run by Varadkar seemed bleak.

Varadkar chose to keep Harris in the Cabinet but left him in the Department of Health, which many felt was worse than demotion. The Taoiseach gave him three tasks: to implement the all-party Sláintecare report, to complete the passage of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill through the Oireachtas, and to bring forward legislation to allow for a referendum on the Eighth Amendment in 2018.

It was his final task that seemed a poisoned chalice. But it developed into quite the gift. Through his work on the campaign Harris gained much-needed credibility. It is widely acknowledged that he is a good communicator. Crucially, though, Harris displays empathy that people find credible.

In the process he has also endeared himself to a generation of voters in search of a leader. "We were looking for someone of a certain age to speak to that cohort of people. We didn't even realise we already had him. It was Harris, and that only became clear during the Prime Time debate," One Together for Yes figure says, referring to RTÉ's final TV debate, four days before polling.

On that programme Harris and the obstetrician Prof Mary Higgins had been due to debate with the LoveBoth spokeswoman Cora Sherlock and the Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín, who were advocating a No vote.

Everything was thrown at Harris. It got personal and, at times, nasty. But he still came out on top

Hours before the debate Harris and Higgins had a trial run. Chris Donoghue, the former Newstalk presenter who is now press adviser to Tánaiste Simon Coveney, played a combined Miriam O’Callaghan and David McCullagh, the programme’s presenters. Two special advisers to the Taoiseach acted as Tóibín and Sherlock.

“Everything was thrown at Harris. It got personal and, at times, nasty. But he still came out on top,” says one person who was present,

As the mock debate concluded, news reached Harris that Sherlock had withdrawn and that the No side was battling to have Maria Steen, the prominent anti-abortion campaigner best known as a spokeswoman for the conservative Iona Institute think tank, appear instead. The broadcaster resisted, as Steen had participated in another RTÉ debate, the Claire Byrne Live referendum special, eight days earlier. An hour before Prime Time went on air it was not quite clear whom Harris would be debating.

In the end it was a head-to-head between Tóibín and the Minister.

Neither of the debates had been perfect for the Yes or No side, but this went as well as it could have for the Yes side. As it concluded the two men shook hands, and the Sinn Féin TD congratulated his rival.

The Claire Byrne Live debate had been a disaster for the Yes side, but it too had served a purpose, causing the pro-choice campaign to shift gear and leave any complacency behind.

Its messaging became more consistent in the final weeks. Internal research showed the words “care” and “compassion” struck a chord with voters. “Choice”, “bodily autonomy” and even “repeal” did not. Fine Gael focus groups showed the most effective message was “care in a time of crisis”, while people also responded sympathetically to the idea of women being forced to travel abroad to have abortions.

Harris’s line about nine women a day travelling to the United Kingdom for terminations, and another three taking abortion pills that they had bought online at home, with no medical care, came up repeatedly in focus groups as reasons to vote Yes. The participation of medical professionals also proved an effective tool for the Yes side.

The same research gauged the No side’s most effective line of attack. The prospect of a Yes vote leading to “abortion on demand” resonated with many. The prospect of giving the Oireachtas too much power also featured heavily.

It was the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution and the Citizens' Assembly that had framed the referendum debate.

As the committee conducted its work between September and December last year, a group including the Taoiseach’s chief of staff, Brian Murphy, the Attorney General, Séamus Woulfe, Simon Harris, Harris’s advisers Joanne Lonergan and Kathyann Barrett, and the Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health, Tony Holohan, made preparations.

The pool got smaller as the discussions began to focus on the Bill to regulate the termination of pregnancy. At all times the main point of contention was the proposal to make abortion legal until the 12th week of gestation and what restrictions could be put in place. It was here the 72-hour “pause period”, between a woman going to her doctor and being able to have an abortion, originated, although at one point it was going to be 48 hours.

Some felt a deliberate decision was taken to sideline Kate O'Connell, the Dublin Bay South TD, who is a pharmacist with a master's degree in primary care

Harris kept in close contact with Dr Peter Boylan, the chairman of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. On Boylan's initiative, a point of viability was specified in the Bill, to ensure abortions could not take place after the 24th week of pregnancy.

Once the Bill's general scheme was published, in March, the conversations moved out of Government Buildings and over to Fine Gael headquarters, on Mount Street. Many within the party had expected Regina Doherty, the Minister for Social Protection, to lead its campaign. But it was Josepha Madigan, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, who got the call from Varadkar.

“It was Holy Thursday when he called. I didn’t expect it. It was the biggest ask of my career to date,” Madigan says. “I went to Mount Merrion church after the call. The irony was not lost on me, but it gave me a chance to think about what I was being asked to do. I knew I was ready for the challenge.”

The following day Madigan convened a meeting of all those involved in the party’s campaign. For the next eight weeks she held 8am meetings on Mondays and Thursdays with 16 key figures, including Harris, his two advisers, the Taoiseach’s chief of staff and the assistant Government press secretary, Sarah Meade.

Madigan also held weekly pre-parliamentary party meetings with members of Fine Gael canvassing for a Yes vote. She used those as a “temperature gauge” and as a chance to remind members to “stay consistent in their messaging”.

The campaign has left its scars on Fine Gael. There were the obvious divisions between Yes and No sides, but there were also splits in the repeal camp.

Some felt a deliberate decision was taken to sideline Kate O'Connell, the Dublin Bay South TD, who is a pharmacist with a master's degree in primary care. That was most felt on Saturday when Varadkar arrived with Harris and Senator Catherine Noone, who had chaired the Oireachtas committee. O'Connell did not get the call.

Political plaudits

Apportioning praise for the result in last weekend’s referendum, in which the Yes side won by 66.4 per cent to 33.6 per cent, is an endless exercise. The credit should fall to the women who shared their most intimate details with the world and the campaigners who fought for abortion rights when it was neither trendy nor acceptable.

Politically, the plaudits fall to Catherine McGuinness, the former Supreme Court judge, and Mary Robinson for their resistance to the 1983 amendment, to the independent socialist TD Clare Daly for her attempts to keep abortion rights on the political agenda, to the Labour Party for its insistence on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which set out when and how abortion could be legally performed in Ireland, to Katherine Zappone, now the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, for ensuring a referendum on the Eighth Amendment was included in the Programme for Government, to Enda Kenny for his facilitation of that, and to Varadkar for his commitment to let the people of Ireland decide whether abortion should be legalised.

But all observers will agree the biggest winner from this campaign was Simon Harris. Even his harshest critics, both inside and outside Fine Gael, acknowledge that. A year ago he was in the wilderness. Now he is a contender again.

“I always liked him and respected him,” one TD says, “but now I admire him. He is the next best thing to Varadkar. Maybe he is better. Either way, he is the future.”

One of Varadkar’s closest allies sees it differently. “There will never be another referendum like the Eighth Amendment. But there will always be problems in the Department of Health, there will always be trolleys, and the dinosaur that is the HSE will always be there, bubbling away. The slap-down will come with a bang. He is no threat to Varadkar.” Yet.

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