Subscriber OnlyPolitics

After talking up a tough game, Harris delivers a nearly new Cabinet with no blood on the carpet

There were no axes wielded and precious few new faces in the Taoiseach’s newly assembled Cabinet

Four versions of the same speech later, and Simon Harris was finally in charge.

His predecessor comfortably installed in the row behind him, languidly scrolling on his phone. His sole senior ministerial departure another row back, also engrossed in his phone.

The new Taoiseach had returned from his audience with the President, seal of office in the bag, ready to rule and ready to run the rule over his officer corps and wield the axe if necessary.

He didn’t.


There would be no need to get contract cleaners into Government Buildings to remove bloodstains from the carpet.

The end of an almost perfect day.

Now, at the age of 37, at the apex of his political career – he is leader of Fine Gael and freshly confirmed Head of Government, accepting the applause of colleagues in Dáil Éireann while his family watch from the gallery with heart-bursting pride.

A stellar achievement.

Simon Harris had been setting out his stall for three weeks before his big day in Dáil Éireann.

A speech on becoming leader.

Another at the party’s ardfheis.

His first address as Taoiseach after Tuesday’s lunchtime vote.

Then the last, most anticipated, one later in the evening when he returned to the chamber with his new Cabinet.

Or nearly new Cabinet, as it turned out.

Nobody got the boot.

Former Minister of State, Peter Burke, got Simon Coveney’s old job and former Minister of State, Patrick O’Donovan, got the new Taoiseach’s old job.

A nation was not agog.

Taoiseach Harris’s cosmetic enhancement of his Cabinet crew was something of a disappointment.

Having shot from the stalls at a ferocious pace, knocking his rivals out of the contest in the early stages and repeatedly talking up a very tough game, he rocketed to the first fence and then tiptoed around it.

In a three-party Coalition, individual leaders have a reduced number of jobs to hand around, but they still can make their mark.

When the Cabinet of the Harris era assembled in the chamber, there was little difference from the Varadkar-era line-up.

The Taoiseach made his fourth speech, aka Aspirations Once Again, and announced his new signings. “I want Minister Peter Burke to bring passion and drive to the job,” he said of his new man in Trade and Enterprise, to muffled sniggers from across the floor.

But perhaps we are being too harsh on Taoiseach Harris. No point in spilling blood for the sake of it. Maybe he will become the Mr Motivator of the Fine Gael ministerial quota, drawing hitherto unseen levels of eh, passion and drive, from his charges.

He didn’t get to where he is today by being a pushover.

He has, at best, a year to turn around his Government and party’s fortunes. That should concentrate the mind wonderfully and Harris is wonderful at concentration.

Danny put the cat among the couldn’t-be-bothered opposition pigeons by proposing his brother Michael for Taoiseach

But on the day he became Taoiseach, it was only right that he should savour the occasion and celebrate it with family and friends.

Not only those who are close to him came to Leinster House. A group of 150 Fine Gael supporters from Wicklow also descended on Kildare Street, thronging the bar and getting stuck into a chicken lunch in the restaurant.

“There won’t be an oat milked in Greystones tonight!” quipped one denizen of the fashionable seaside town.

The Taoiseach’s family arrived at 10am in the morning and had a light breakfast in the private diningroom before heading for the Dáil chamber. Among them his parents, Mary and Bart, wife Caoimhe and children Cillian and Saoirse, and his grandmother Ann Cahill.

The children were complete dotes. Their dad stole every opportunity he could to nip up the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery to give them a few hugs.

But one of the most touching moments was when the new Taoiseach turned to acknowledge his “Nana”.

This was not long after Heather Humphreys recalled the first time she saw Simon in Leinster House, remembering how she thought to herself: “Ah sure, he must be in on a school tour.”

And here he was now, 13 years later. The Taoiseach talking about his nana – a rather sobering moment for those of us not in the first flush of youth.

There was a slight moment of hesitation and then everyone in the chamber applauded – not the Taoiseach, but his Nana Cahill, because politicians cannot resist a nana.

The old order was still in situ when Simon made his entrance in the morning, with Varadkar and Coveney still in their seats. He took a rose badge from his pocket (it’s for Cystic Fibrosis) and handed it to Tánaiste Micheál Martin, who couldn’t pin it on with butter fingers. Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan acting like his mammy, took it and pinned it on for him.

Leo Varadkar made his final speech as Taoiseach, offering “some reflections” before departing.

Later on, Micheál cheekily wondered if he might be thinking about compiling his thoughts into a book.

Up in their eyrie behind their Dad, Cillian (nearly 3) and Saoirse (5) kept up a quiet running commentary. They didn’t lick it off the stones.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, wearing a stylish satin dress in a sophisticated shade of Eau de Nil, smiled at the charming scene. For a woman who was seen as the minister most in danger of demotion, she seemed remarkably relaxed.

And she held on to her job.

Senators watched from behind the railing at the top of the chamber. MEP Frances Fitzgerald, who is stepping down this year, watched the Taoiseach with a smile – she was the one who recognised his potential and gave him a job in her office when she was a senator.

Leo, meanwhile, echoed the view of a number of speakers when he declared he always knew Simon would be Taoiseach one day.

At the end of his speech, he sat down with a broad smile.

Happy out.

And Heather Humphreys, who nominated Harris, counselled the Taoiseach to pay good heed to his father because “taxi drivers have their finger on the pulse”.

He was seconded by a very nervous looking Peter Burke, even if it was rightly assumed to be a case of “winner all right” when he was the TD chosen to go after Heather.

The Opposition opposed the nomination and demanded an election.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald called for a general election and change.

She didn’t get the first one, but she achieved the second, appearing at the morning session in a white jacket and arriving for second round at teatime in royal blue.

“It’s a charade!” bellowed Mattie McGrath in a confusing contribution which some described as unintelligible, but that’s because they didn’t hear Danny Healy-Rae’s one.

Danny put the cat among the couldn’t-be-bothered opposition pigeons by proposing his brother Michael for Taoiseach.

In a wide-ranging nomination speech, he took aim at the despicable Greens and all the main political parties who are ballyragging the decent farming people of Ireland day in and day out in the Dáil.

“I have never seen people more angry or disillusioned,” he bellowed. “Even last year, Eamon Ryan ensured that the Luas was painted white – nine carriages – and advising people not to drink milk. I ask each and every one of ye here today what would we be like if our mothers didn’t give us milk when we were growing up and after being born – ridiculous stuff.”

Above in the public gallery was a little knot of diplomats, dutifully taking notes. They looked very puzzled. Then they gave up and concentrated instead on trying not to laugh too loudly.

Excitement levels rose in the car park when they let out a big cheer, but it was only for the arrival of Heather

Richard Boyd Barrett called the change of leadership and election of a new Taoiseach episode “a jamboree”.

The Ceann Comhairle took him to task. It was no such thing, he insisted, but nobody in the chamber really believed him.

“The incoming Taoiseach has been in office for almost his entire adult life. Where is the new energy? Where is the new approach? Honestly, I cannot see it,” said Holly Cairns of the Social Democrats in a contribution which was so devoid of energy that her own colleagues couldn’t even muster a decent round of applause.

When the new Taoiseach finally got his chance to speak, he reiterated the point made in his last two keynote addresses. But his references to his family – parents, siblings, wife and kids were lovely.

Hearts melted when little Cillian clapped his hands and cried “Daddy!".

Before he left for the Áras, members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party rushed outside and did their best to form an orderly guard of honour on either side of the front door with mixed success.

Excitement levels rose in the car park when they let out a big cheer, but it was only for the arrival of Heather.

When the slightly shell-shocked-looking Taoiseach emerged, they hollered again and tried to grab him for posterity. There were hugs and kisses from the likes of Hildegarde Naughton and Helen McEntee and Alan Farrell, proving you have to kiss a few frogs on your way to the top.

The Harris family landed in the Aras with Cillian mad to see Michael D’s dog Misneach. “He’s three years old,” the President told him. “I’m nearly three,” replied Cillian.

Afterwards, everybody returned to Leinster House where Julie Lyons and the catering team laid on lunch of Leek and Potato Soup or Smoked Salmon and brown bread for starters and a choice of turkey and ham, baked salmon in a prawn and prosecco sauce or a spinach and ricotta pasta bake.

Desert was a choice of a “Taoiseach” Chocolate chip Cabinet pudding or a Raspberry Roulade with Mango Coulis.

There was pasta and a special “Flossie” cake for the children.

The Taoiseach then showed them around his office in Government Buildings.

Leo Varadkar had left a painting on Simon’s desk as a welcome gift.

It was a very long day.

The Taoiseach pledged he will be a Taoiseach for all.

There is a lot of goodwill out there for him. He certainly has the energy.

Now, he merely has to deliver. It’s a tall order.