Simon Harris brings one big advantage to the job of Taoiseach – and one big disadvantage

Already there are four key signs about where his priorities will lie – and they don’t include scrapping with the Opposition

A week and a half into the Simon Harris era and too soon, really, to make even an early judgment. But there are some clear signposts to how he will do the job, where his priorities lie, and the political calculations he will make in the coming months. They are worth recounting, because of the power of the Government to drive the political agenda, and the power of the Taoiseach to set the tone for the Government. Fianna Fáil, which still has a few old hands at this stuff around, is watching him like a hawk.

1. Early Dáil performances show Harris understands there is a difference between being Taoiseach and being a minister. He does not entirely eschew conflict with the Opposition, but he seems to be trying to rise above it – trying to be Taoiseach, a national leader, not a partisan figure. Harris will not shy away from conflict with Sinn Féin when the occasion demands it (he cut loose a little while in Brussels at his first EU summit) and he will, as his predecessor did repeatedly and unsuccessfully, try to present elections as a choice between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. But he will not, it seems, seek to mudwrestle with the Opposition in the Dáil every week.

2. Political calculations will be ever-present as Harris and his Government colleagues decide what they will do and what they won’t before the end of this administration. Is there a political upside to this? If not, the level of interest slumps. On any reckoning, the referendum on joining the EU patents’ court should have been proceeded as an act of good government. Is there a country in the world where intellectual property law is more central to economic wellbeing? But a simple calculation was made – is there a political upside to this? And then down it went.

I think we will see a similar process at play in other major political decisions, as the great general election countdown that is ticking in every politician’s head continues and the political horizons narrow. The days after the Cabinet approved the patent court postponement, Jennifer Bray reported that any further liberalisation of the law on abortion before the election is unlikely. It won’t be the last such story in the coming months, I expect.


It is interesting that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil talk noticeably more about ‘home ownership’ compared to Sinn Féin’s focus on social and affordable housing

3. There’s a fightback, of sorts, on housing. Harris has continued the mantra that housing is the Government’s number one priority, and promised an eye-catching 250,000 new homes in the next five years. In reality, that will probably happen anyway. But it is interesting that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil talk noticeably more about “home ownership” compared to Sinn Féin’s focus on social and affordable housing. That dividing line will probably grow in clarity. As will the question of the continuation of the Government support schemes such as Help to Buy, which Sinn Féin has pledged to scrap.

Fine Gael knows that the people Harris recently described as being stuck in their parents’ box room aren’t going to vote for the party. But it is hopeful that those who have managed to move out and buy their own home, and who don’t want to see the slump in house prices advocated by Sinn Féin, might. Not to mention the homeowners who are seeing their chief asset continue to appreciate in value.

4. Harris’s ascent to the Taoiseach’s office comes at a point in time when politics seems poised for something; it’s just not clear entirely what. This much has been apparent in the various party conferences that have taken place in recent weeks and continues today in the RDS with the Green Party. All the parties seem to be sort of waiting for something, some timorously, some expectantly. In some respects, it’s like 2006 – economic growth, unpopular government, no great enthusiasm for the alternative.

Look at it this way: there have been two significant trends in the opinion polls since the last general election. The first was the rise of Sinn Féin, the second was the fall of Sinn Féin. We’ll come to discuss that in the coming weeks, but for now, it’s sufficient to note that the fall in support for Sinn Féin – from the mid-30 per cents to the mid-20 per cents – has not been accompanied by a commensurate increase in support for its chief rivals in the Government. Instead, the support lost by Sinn Féin is scattered around, with most going to Independents of various stripes.

Harris has, I guess, the time between now and the local and European elections to change something in the way Fine Gael-available voters see the party

If voters have fallen out of love with Mary Lou McDonald, they certainly haven’t rediscovered the charms of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The electorate, for now anyway, seem to be in a sort of plague-on-all-your-houses mood. Perhaps they will stay with the Independents and the smaller parties; more likely they will give the big parties another look before the election – they hog much of the political debate and the media coverage of it. The conditions seem to be in place for a big swing, but there are few indications where it might go.

To this uncertain mix, Harris brings one big advantage and one big disadvantage. First, novelty. The public, even those who pay only passing attention to politics, notice a new Taoiseach and will give him a hearing. Second, familiarity. His party has been in office for 13 years. And you know what they say about familiarity. The Fine Gael leadership change has introduced a new uncertainty into the great game. Harris has the time between now and the local and European elections to change something in the way Fine Gael-available voters see the party. If he gives the impression of a man in a hurry... he should be.