Last month, Leo Varadkar shocked Irish and British politics by announcing his resignation as taoiseach and leader of the Fine Gael party. Varadkar said: “After seven years in office, I don’t feel I’m the best person for the job anymore.” 

The man who now feels he is best for the job is 37-year-old Simon Harris, the higher education minister who has quickly climbed the ranks to become one of the most important figures in Irish politics. Yet, he is something of an unknown outside the Emerald Isle.

Born in Greystones, County Wicklow, Harris attended state schools before dropping out of a degree in French and journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology to focus on politics. Mentored by Frances Fitzerald, Harris got an initial taste of politics and public service as a teenager lobbying for autism services for his younger brother. 

Ahead of being sworn in, his former mentor Fitzgerald said: “At this stage there is more interest in why Leo left than who is Simon Harris but that will very quickly turn to who is Simon.”

He was a councillor in 2009 before being elected to the Irish parliament in 2011. He quickly gained junior cabinet posts and was made health minister in 2016. 

Harris has been clear that he wants his centre-right party to return to its roots. Last month, he said: “Fine Gael stands for supporting businesses, especially small businesses the length and breadth of this country. Fine Gael stands for making work pay, for making sure we value work and we value people who go to work. Fine Gael stands for law and order.”

At a speech at his party’s conference over the weekend, he said he wants to build 250,000 houses over the next five years and would “move mountains” to get young people “out of the box room and into a home of their own”. He said he would respect the EU’s immigration policy that would be “fair and firm”. In response to the recent Dublin riots, he pledged to create a city task force that would address the issues facing the city. 

The coalition government’s recent defeat at the referenda on constitutional reform has been followed by a loss of support for all three parties in the polls. Leader of the Sinn Féin opposition Mary Lou McDonald has in vain called for a snap election. The question now is whether Harris will be as out of touch with the Irish people as his predecessors. His call for Fine Gael to return to its roots shows that he cares about such questions.  

Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at