After six months in charge of the justice portfolio, Simon Harris was never going to quietly slip out of the job unnoticed.
On his last day before he handed the reins of power back to Helen McEntee as she returned from maternity leave, Harris instead chose to lay down the law to his Coalition partners in the Green Party.
The Greens may have been objecting to contentious plans to allow the use of facial recognition technology by gardaí, but Harris was unperturbed.
“There are some key issues you can’t compromise on when you are the Minister for Justice,” he said, despite the fact he was hours from relinquishing the role.
Behind closed doors, his exit from the Department of Justice was much more low-key. On Wednesday evening, he sat down for a cup of tea and chat with the main civil servants and staff. He then moved back to his other office in the Department of Higher Education.
Senior figures in the Coalition have looked on – some with amusement, others a little more critically – as Harris shamelessly grabbed the bull by the horns in the six months he was in the role
Harris didn’t have far to walk: the two departments are located right next to each other on St Stephen’s Green and the offices are interlinked, separated by one door with a glass panel.
All told, it took him about 20 seconds to move back to his old quarters.
Senior figures in the Coalition have looked on – some with amusement, others a little more critically – as Harris shamelessly grabbed the bull by the horns in the six months he was in the role.
‘Threw myself into it’
The 36-year-old, who woos media attention with gusto, says he gave the role his all.
Speaking to The Irish Times this week, he recalled the words of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar when he was appointed last year.
“He said: ‘You are not a caretaker minister: I need you to give this your all.’ That is what I did. I threw myself into it, while continuing to work hard at my other portfolio. I did give it my all,” he said.
Speaking privately, his colleagues in the Fine Gael parliamentary party say they are unsurprised that Harris went into the job with all guns blazing.
It is how I operate. Whatever you ask me to do, I’m going to throw myself into it to the very best of my ability. I don’t rule out anything— Simon Harris
“Simon will say he has no great designs on the leadership, but of course he does. It is as clear as day that he wants it. Having said that, he is not making any moves on the quiet. He won’t take any steps in that arena until there is a vacancy. But many people think it is his to lose,” said one colleague.
Asked if he still has ambitions for the leadership, Harris avoids the stock “there is no vacancy” line that politicians often deploy to swot away such questions.
“I think even my harshest critics would say that any role I am given in government, I genuinely try to give it my all. It is my personality. It is how I operate. Whatever you ask me to do, I’m going to throw myself into it to the very best of my ability. I don’t rule out anything. I don’t rule out that sort of stuff in the future. It doesn’t consume me, and it also doesn’t arise: the biggest issue now is making sure we deliver. Delivery is the key test for this Government,” he says.
Talk of future leadership contenders may make awkward reading for Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, but Harris is not the only ambitious candidate waiting on the sidelines against the backdrop of a creeping dissatisfaction with Varadkar. Senior Cabinet members such as Paschal Donohoe, Helen McEntee and Simon Coveney, along with junior ministers such as Peter Burke, are often mentioned as potential leaders.
And then there is Fine Gael’s latest rising star.
“Jennifer Carroll MacNeill is clipping at his heels,” one veteran Fine Gael figure said this week.
“She is everywhere, holding constituency visits every week, turning up all over the place. Harris would hate that. She is shocking ambitious and is also becoming Sinn Féin’s most vocal critic. He may need to keep an eye there, although he surely has more time on his hands now.”
While colleagues are quick to commend his media skills – and Harris is a canny media operator – others are less convinced.
A view held by different political observers is that Harris is a hard worker, but over-promises and that, on some initiatives, little further detail emerges beyond the initial announcement.
“He is our best media performer, there is no doubt. There is nobody within an ass’s roar of him, as they say,” one observer says.
‘Fob us off’
“But at the same time some Oireachtas members just simply don’t believe everything that he says. Some of us feel like he says things just to fob us off. He is sincere and he is brilliant on the box, but sometimes you just never hear back despite being told all the right words.”
Fine Gael prides itself as being the party of law and order and it would seem that Harris impressed his party colleagues during his stint in justice.
“He went in there to impress, and actually, most people in the party are delighted with the kind of moves he has made. In fairness, he got to grips with a lot of the main issues, whether it was lawlessness on the streets or defending the gardaí,” says one Fine Gael politician.
Harris describes the role of justice minister as an “honour”.
Consistent with character, he does not hesitate listing off his achievements over the last number of months.
“I felt a real sense of responsibility, to be quite honest. We were going through a number of very difficult challenges. We saw an uptick in attacks on members of An Garda Síochána. One of the first series of meetings I had was with Garda representative bodies and they said to me: look, the law needs to change to make sure that there is stronger sentencing for anyone who attacks a garda, or indeed rams a car or attacks a frontline worker. I set about making sure that we brought a change to the law to increase the maximum sentence from seven years to 12 years.”
He also references cracking down on those who try to groom children for a life of crime and the expansion of judicial numbers to give more capacity to the system.
A big challenge in the next election, from a Fine Gael perspective, is to put the case why we should return to Government and why a Sinn Féin-led Government would not be good for the country— Simon Harris
“Helen had commissioned a really good report on judicial numbers, I managed to get that approved by Government and then passed the legislation to increase the number of judges. I was also minister at a time when both the Garda Commissioner and I spoke about the threat of the far right. I tried to be a minister for justice who was supportive of the work of the gardaí at a very challenging time for them.”
So what next for Fine Gael’s most relentless politician?
The Wicklow TD says his “immediate priority” now is reducing the cost of higher education – referencing cuts to fees and grants in the last budget – and “turbo charging” the number of student accommodation places available.
But he also has an eye on the next general election.
“A big challenge in the next election, from a Fine Gael perspective, is to put the case why we should return to government and why a Sinn Féin-led government would not be good for the country,” he says.
An even bigger challenge might, in fact, be Fine Gael’s standing in the polls. Recent polls show the party hovering around 20 per cent, marginally below its 2020 general election performance and a whopping 16 points below the support it won in the 2011 election that brought Fine Gael to power.
Giving their assessment, a long-time member of the party said: “We are all watching the polls, and if they go much lower than 20 per cent for a consistent period, there might be wider issue. Many of us are waiting for the review of constituency boundaries to land and if the poll nerves are going to kick in at any time, it will be then. Then we could have an issue.”
Notwithstanding that, barring a political catastrophe, it is highly likely that Varadkar will lead Fine Gael into the next election, poll nerves or not.
Harris was the minister for health during the successful campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the referendum that legalised abortion. Despite his leading role in the 2018 poll, he is not yet publicly giving his views on the 10 legislative recommendations for change made by barrister Marie O’Shea following her review of abortion law, including a proposal to remove the three-day waiting period.
“I am keeping an open mind on that. My approach to this issue has always been to trust women and trust doctors. But I am also conscious that commitments were made to the Irish people during the referendum. I will be giving my view on this once the committee has finished its work,” he says, before quickly adding: “I am not known to shirk from giving my view on difficult or sensitive subjects though.”
For Harris, the next big battle will be the budget. Local and European elections in 2024 will test his party’s mettle. A general election could follow very soon after, as early as the autumn, although Fianna Fáil may have something to say about that.
“The next 18 months are about delivery, delivery, delivery,” Harris said this week, mentioning housing as the key test.
But does Harris have the patience to wait 18 months before making manoeuvres within Fine Gael? And will he go looking for hard support to back up his ambitions in the meantime?