Northern Ireland

Simon Harris: Ambitious and well-informed but unknown quantity north of border

The man expected to succeed Leo Varadkar has had little engagement with Northern Ireland

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (centre) with Minister for Justice Helen McEntee (left) and Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris
Simon Harris is widely expected to succeed Leo Varadkar as Fine Gael leader and taoiseach. PICTURE: BRIAN LAWLESS/PA (Brian Lawless/PA)

Relative to other senior Fine Gael figures, Simon Harris is somewhat of an unknown quantity in Northern Ireland.

His role as the Republic’s health minister during the pandemic gave him some profile but it’s fair to say he’s not been especially visible north of the border, with a couple of visits to the region’s two universities being the sum total of his physical engagement.

There’s been no speeches at party conferences and very rare visits in his capacity as a TD, which is typical for those members of government who haven’t served in foreign affairs or had any role in the so-called decade of centenaries.

The absence of the Stormont institutions and the associated North-South Ministerial Council has also restricted his cross-border endeavours.

His contribution in policy terms has been greater, however. In December, in his role as Minister for Further Education, Mr Harris changed the rules that had previously discouraged northern students from applying for places at universities in the Republic.

Under the new guidance, which has to be agreed with individual universities, students from the north will not be required to have four A-levels to score maximum points under the southern application system.

Fine Gael colleagues Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris

The following month, in a Shared Island initiative aimed at addressing the dearth of qualified doctors in the south, the Fine Gael minister announced plans to subsidise students from the Republic who want to study medicine north of the border.

Born in Greystones, Wicklow, in the heart of the constituency he’s represented in the Dáil since 2011, 37-year-old Mr Harris doesn’t come from one of the Republic’s political dynasties, though his a great-uncle was a Fine Gael councillor.

He dropped out of education relatively early and as teenager campaigned for families of children with autism spectrum disorders and attention deficit disorder. His brother Adam was diagnosed with autism at a young age and is founder and CEO of AsIAm, the Republic’s national autism charity.

Mr Harris, who now looks likely to be the next taoiseach, initially worked in the office of his future cabinet colleague Frances Fitzgerald and was elected as a councillor in 2009. He became a TD two years later and was the Dáil’s youngest representative at the time.

His first cabinet role came in 2014 when he was appointed minister for finance before taking the health portfolio some two years later.

He was appointed Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science when Fine Gael went into coalition with Fianna Fáil and the Greens in 2020.

Those who know the Fine Gael representative describe him as intelligent and very capable. It’s noted that if he isn’t across a particular issue he’ll make it his business to bring himself up to speed.

“Engaged to the point of appearing intense,” was how one associate described him. He’s said to be ambitious and driven, and someone who’s worked hard in recent years ingratiating himself with grassroots party members in preparation for this day.

In terms of how he’ll fair with Stormont’s politicians, we can easily assume that he has neither enemies nor friends north of the border, yet both Sinn Féin and the DUP can be expected to view him with a degree of suspicion, albeit for different reasons.

He doesn’t quite tick the diversity boxes to the same extent as the incumbent, suggesting his tenure may well be characterised by the humdrum and a distinct lack of flair.