Harris will have to learn from Bertie Ahern and Mary Lou McDonald to pull off Fine Gael’s political comeback – David McCann

New Fine Gael leader is walking tightrope between the prospect of leading party to historic fourth term or being shortest-serving taoiseach

David McCann

David McCann

David McCann is an Irish News columnist and commentator on politics and elections.

Fine Gael leader Simon Harris at the party's ard fheis at the University of Galway surrounded by party colleagues and waving to delegates
Fine Gael leader Simon Harris at the party's ard fheis at the University of Galway at the weekend where he set out his priorities as for the role of taoiseach (Brian Lawless/Brian Lawless/PA Wire)

Simon Harris has become the new taoiseach. He takes over with just under a year left in this government’s mandate, with local and European elections just weeks away, and with Fine Gael’s ratings in recent polls still poor.

Whether he can turn this around remains to be seen. He needs a political comeback on par with what Sinn Féin achieved at the last Irish general election.

Last month, Fine Gael entered its 14th year in office; never has the party enjoyed such a long run on the government benches. Harris is rare in coming to the country’s top political job having never served in opposition.

First elected at TD in 2011, the new taoiseach has only ever known life in Leinster House in government. Opposition is a horrible place where you can only suggest ideas but not implement them. You merely sit and watch as the government undoes your previous policies and takes the country in a direction you may be fundamentally opposed to.

Being an opposition leader is regarded as the worst job in politics, and the possibility of ending up there after the next election must be hanging over Harris as he tries to reboot the Fine Gael team in government. He has long wanted to lead his party and get to this position. He comes to the job as the youngest person ever to become taoiseach, but he also faces the prospect of being the shortest-serving in the state’s history.

Simon Harris and Simon Coveney at a news conference in 2020
Enterprise minister Simon Coveney has said he is stepping down from cabinet (Brian Lawless/PA)

His talent pool is also small. The last election saw Fine Gael reduced to just 35 seats. Over the past year, more than 30 per cent of its TDs have announced their retirement at the next general election. Additionally, big names such as Simon Coveney are stepping down from cabinet, meaning it hard for him to promote new talent in any substantive way, and he is also losing experienced politicians.

Do the history books offer any comfort for Simon Harris? Have other taoisigh who have come in between elections lifted the fortunes of their respective parties? The short answer is no.

Leo Varadkar, Brian Cowen, Albert Reynolds and Charles Haughey all took their parties backwards in either opinion polls or general elections that followed their immediate appointment. You have to go back to Jack Lynch in the 1960s to find a taoiseach who maintained the support of their party and was easily re-elected.

Former taoiseach the late Jack Lynch – in The Catholic Predicament in ‘Northern Ireland’ he is portrayed as virtually a British puppet
Jack Lynch was the last politician to take over the role of taoiseach and see his party maintain support in office

All these political currents are going against Harris. The policy challenges on housing, crime and health are enormous. Mixed in with this is that as a senior minister for the past few years, he will not be able to easily distance himself from some of the failures of Fine Gael’s 14 years in office.

Reading this, you could be forgiven for thinking that the next election is a no-hope situation. However, the volatile nature of modern Irish politics shows two things: first, that a good campaign matters; and second, that the ability to communicate a compelling narrative can shift support and turn around dire opinion polls.

Do the history books offer any comfort for Simon Harris? Have other taoisigh who have come in between elections lifted the fortunes of their respective parties? The short answer is no

In 2020, Sinn Féin succeeded with a strong campaign and a compelling narrative. Likewise, in 2007, Fianna Fáil did an incredible job of re-engaging the public during the campaign, turning around poor polling beforehand.

Whilst Simon Harris will not want to say it out loud, he will have to learn from Mary Lou McDonald and Bertie Ahern to pull off this political comeback for Fine Gael.

Sinn Féin Leader Mary Lou McDonald is elected as ballot papers are counted at the RDS in Dublin. Niall Carson/PA Wire.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates after being elected in Dublin during a strong performance for the party in the 2020 general election

Winning a fourth term is hard in Irish politics. You need to go back more than 50 years for the last time it was achieved. Harris is walking a tightrope between the prospect of leading Fine Gael to a historic fourth term in government or being the shortest-serving taoiseach.

The tests will come thick and fast with the upcoming local elections, then the budget, and before we know it, it will be time for the general election. The new taoiseach does not have a second to lose in righting the ship.