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Inexperience no barrier to potential success for Simon Harris

Taoiseach may be very young but has demonstrated he is highly skilled at politics and his Cabinet choices indicate a concern for geography and the next election

Outgoing taoiseach Leo Varadkar probably summed it up best. He always knew Simon Harris would be taoiseach, he told the Dáil in his valedictory speech this morning. He just didn’t think it would be so soon.

Harris is not just the youngest taoiseach ever; he faces, probably, the greatest step-up of anyone who has assumed the highest political office in the land. He has not held any of the finance or economic portfolios, or foreign affairs, nor has he led the Opposition. By the standards of those who normally come to the office, or its foreign equivalents, he is undoubtedly inexperienced.

That is not a barrier to success. The great generation that founded the independent Irish State was pretty wet behind the ears. Michael Collins was 31 when he died; Éamon de Valera was president of the First Dáil at the age of 36, a year younger than Harris is now. More than half of the first cabinet of the Free State was under the age of 35.

But just as experience is no guarantee of wisdom, so youth is not, in itself, a virtue. The qualities that Harris will need to be a successful taoiseach and a successful leader of his party are the same at 37 as they would be at 47 or any other age: an even temperament, self-belief, strength of character, the courage to take on problems and not seek to avoid them; stamina, both mental and physical; judgment; and, maybe, a fair dollop of luck.


Even Harris’s opponents concede his political skills and his communications abilities. The ability to manoeuvre himself into the position where he was unopposed for the job which is, after all, the most sought-after in the political world – a jungle stalked by wily and ruthless beasts – speaks of an ability to plan carefully and move fast. He is not some fresh-faced ingénue who has arrived here by accident. He is good at politics.

Harris has said that he wants FG Ministers to concentrate on a small number of priorities

What did Tuesday tell us about how the new taoiseach will run the remainder of the Coalition’s term of office?

His Cabinet choices indicate a concern for geography that reflects the proximity of the next election. Fine Gael under Leo Varadkar was sometimes accused of being too Dublin-centric and at times too posh-boy. That did not help the causes of Neale Richmond or Jennifer Carroll-MacNeill, both among the ablest of the junior ministers and who could reasonably have expected to be considered, at least, for elevation.

The promotions are all for TDs from outside Dublin – Peter Burke of Longford-Westmeath to the Department of Enterprise and Limerick’s Patrick O’Donovan to Higher Education. Galway West’s Hildegarde Naughton remains in the chief whip’s office and is also to be Minister for the West.

The idea behind this seems to be that, all of a sudden, Fine Gael sounds more like a party of rural Ireland. Though the idea that potential FG voters in Cork or Kerry or Tipperary will be delighted with a Munster minister from Limerick seems like a far-fetched notion. Cork FG voters weren’t even that impressed with a Cork minister the last time.

Harris has said that he wants FG Ministers to concentrate on a small number of priorities. How he wants his Government to give expression to these is something he will have to figure out and then discuss with his Government partners, who are – it is fair to say – on a state of high alert about the new Fine Gael leader’s political ambitions.

This is underscored by an important truth about this Coalition – that its constituent parts will be, as we approach the next election, simultaneously electoral rivals and Government allies. That is going to be tricky to navigate. It is one of the chief conundrums facing the new taoiseach.

There are essentially two competing narratives about Irish politics right now. They were apparent in the Dáil debate on Tuesday morning before the vote on Harris’s appointment, and again this evening when Harris named his new Cabinet for Dáil approval. One, led by Sinn Féin and propounded by most of the Opposition, is that Ireland has been appallingly governed for decades and is in need of radical change. The other – the Government’s central case – is that while the country has problems, they are being addressed, and that it is on balance a good place to live.

Of course, your perception of each of these narratives might depend on your own circumstances. But their enduring strength means that, in many respects, the most acute political competition is not between these two schools of thought – but rather within them.

In other words, Sinn Féin’s main competitors are other parties and candidates on the left who share their analysis; and Fine Gael’s rivals for those centrist votes will be Fianna Fáil, as well as those Independents who voted for him on Tuesday.

Managing that inevitable competition in such a way that it does not derail the Government’s coherence will be one of the new Taoiseach’s most challenging tasks.