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Simon Harris’s vague commitments leave hardly a single area of Government untroubled

Fine Gael leader provides plenty of platitudes but little information about what he will do as taoiseach in ardfheis speech

“A new energy” was the theme of the Fine Gael Ardfheis and the 2,000 delegates who attended the event at the University of Galway this weekend were determined to live up to it.

As the wind howled outside and the rain intermittently lashed through the campus concourses today, there was no dimming the enthusiasm of the assembled Fine Gaelers. A new energy was about the place, you might say. A new leader for a new era. A New Hope.

There was a slight awkwardness at the heart of it, though. The former leader, still Taoiseach remember, was still around. Hailing the new leader was all very well, but you wouldn’t want to cast any aspersions on the old one. Just because there is a new energy around, doesn’t mean there was anything wrong with the old energy. Tricky. They gave Leo Varadkar a rousing send-off, in fairness.

Also tricky was the balancing act that Ministers had to walk – desperately pitching to keep their jobs in Tuesday’s reshuffle, while insisting this was a matter for A New Energy himself to decide. “I’ve made no secret of the fact I want to continue my work in Justice,” Helen McEntee told journalists frankly. She has a 50/50 chance at best, was the sense of most of the gossip around Galway. But as ever with these things, nobody really knows until the last minute.


Anyway, as far as the public is concerned, it probably doesn’t matter that much. Ordinary voters tend to be as magnificently disinterested in jobs for politicians as politicians are interested in them.

What the public might be interested in, though, is what the new taoiseach has to say to them when he is taoiseach. What he will do when he has power. Truthfully, tonight’s speech didn’t give much away in that regard.

A New Energy hit the delegates with a barrage of platitudes. “Hit the ground running”, “match vision with action”; “stand by our values”; “fix housing once and for all”; “we will move mountains”; “we will not stop until we finish the job”; he promised the adoring crowd.

There was little information about what he would actually do as taoiseach. But hardly a single area of Government was left untroubled by vague commitments of unspecified improvements. Whether on housing (“to young people, I want you to know your future is here in Ireland”), on disabilities (“under my leadership, your voice will be heard”), on education (“we can and we must break down the barriers to education”) or immigration (“we need to listen to people”) there was a well-meaning aspiration for everyone in the audience.

Not much by way of details, it’s not unfair to say. Maybe that comes next week, when the new government is formed. When it comes, it will have to work. It will need smart politics, and a change in the relationship his party currently has with voters. He needs a change in message, tone and atmosphere. Not easy.

Anyway, they loved it. Delegates cheered him to the rafters. It is impossible to fake enthusiasm of this quality, but there was perhaps a hint of desperation about it as well. This is, after all, a party that will soon be seeking an unprecedented fourth term in government, in the face of some very significant headwinds that all the delegates are acutely aware of. The poll numbers are anaemic, at best. Sitting TDs are stampeding towards the exits. The leader has just skedaddled. The party has been in a slow-motion crisis for months – maybe longer – that Varadkar’s exit has only now crystalised. And time is short.

Standing in the gap, hoping to reverse all these seemingly irresistible trends, is the 37-year-old “husband and father”, son of a taxi driver and special needs assistant, A New Energy. Can he deliver?