Harris pledges ‘reset’ as he becomes Irish PM in waiting By Reuters


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© Reuters. Ireland’s Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris, speaks after being announced as the new leader of Fine Gael during the party’s leadership election meeting, in Athlone, Ireland, March 24, 2024. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

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By Graham Fahy and Padraic Halpin

ATHLONE, Ireland (Reuters) – Simon Harris became Ireland’s prime minister-in-waiting on Sunday, pledging to support small businesses, look at law and order and tackle immigration after an uncontested election to replace Leo Varadkar as leader. of the ruling Fine Gael party.

Harris, a 37-year-old minister best known for supporting the country’s early response to COVID-19, will be elected as Ireland’s first-ever prime minister when parliament sits on April 9 with the support of the coalition.

He does not have more than a year to save the union from being defeated in the general election. Polls over the past three years have put Sinn Fein, a left-wing party that supports union with British-ruled Northern Ireland, as the favorite to lead the next government.

“It’s time for Fine Gael to start again,” Harris told hundreds of members at a packed event in Athlone town.

“Under my leadership, Fine Gael stands for supporting businesses, especially small businesses… Fine Gael stands for supporting the family farm… the roads are safe and crime is not allowed to go unchecked.”

After months of speculation that Varadkar would win a primary election later this year, Harris has told reporters he intends to run until March 2025.

Varadkar announced his resignation on Wednesday, shocking even his political allies, saying Fine Gael would have the chance to elect another leader.

Harris has spoken out in recent days about how she got involved in politics as a “spirited, shy teenager” angry at the lack of education to support her autistic brother. He tried to portray himself as an “accidental politician”, even though he spent many years in parliament.

He is one of Ireland’s best looking ministers and a powerful artist. His social media presence prompted a parliamentary critic to call Harris the “TikTok taoiseach” (Irish for Prime Minister).

‘SOMETIMES DIFFERENT’

While the economy has grown significantly under Varadkar, successive governments, including Harris, have struggled with a decade-long housing crisis and, more recently, pressure from an influx of immigrants and refugees.

Harris said Ireland needed to move to a “stable, sustainable” immigration system and a “fair and robust” system.

He is also being pressured by members to clarify what Fine Gael offers to voters.

“I think he needs to refocus on the core values ​​of Fine Gael,” said party member Mary McDonagh, urging Harris to support rural hospitality businesses and “disaffected” farmers.

Joining a three-party coalition government that is working on consensus will give Harris little room to act on new initiatives.

Two more polls on Sunday confirmed Sinn Fein’s decline from 12 to 18 months ago, although they also showed smaller parties and independents as the beneficiaries of the state parties.

A Business Post/Red C poll conducted before Varadkar’s exit put Sinn Fein ahead of Fine Gael on 6 per cent, while an Irish Independent/Ireland Thinks poll after he left showed a five-point margin with Fine Gael slightly ahead.

Two of Fine Gael’s 33 lawmakers called on Harris to scrap hate crime laws and later open opening hours for bars and nightclubs as a sign he is moving back to the right.

“We have been left behind for too long,” former lawmaker and former minister Michael Ring told national broadcaster RTE.

“If they don’t take this opportunity (to change), Fine Gael and Simon Harris will pay a heavy price in the coming months.”



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