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Simon Harris, the youngest “Taoiseach” at the head of Ireland

Correspondent in London.

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Simon Harris, the youngest “Taoiseach” at the head of Ireland

Correspondent in London

He is a young man in a hurry, who quickly made his way. Ireland's new prime minister is the youngest in the country's history. Simon Harris became “Taoiseach” on Tuesday at the age of 37, after taking over as leader of the centre-right Fine Gael party. With the difficult task of giving it a new lease of life.

It was a twist of theater that pushed the young politician to the height of power. To everyone's surprise, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced his resignation on March 20. The one who has been at the head of the executive since December 2022 - after a first mandate between 2017 and 2020 - has also left the leadership of Fine Gael. This 45-year-old – who became prime minister at 38 – wanted to embody a “modern Ireland”. He cited "personal and political reasons", believing that a new leader would be better able to lead the party into the battle for general elections, scheduled for no later than February 2025. This announcement followed the bitter setback during a referendum where the Irish answered “no” to two amendments to the Constitution, to modernize the definition of the family and the place of women in society.

Although he once described himself as an "accidental politician", Simon Harris has long done everything to achieve this destiny. It is even said that he had this supreme ambition since his childhood. Born in the coastal town of Greystones, near Dublin, he joined the Fine Gael party at the age of 16. This son of a taxi driver and a school assistant got involved very early in the cause of autistic people, his brother having developed Asperger's syndrome. “Life fell upon me much faster than I had expected” once confided the man who abandoned his journalism and French studies to work with an influential senator.

After entering politics, everything happened very quickly. Elected locally at 22, MP at 24 – he is nicknamed the “baby of the Dail”, the Irish parliament – ​​he joined the government as Secretary of State for Finance in 2014, at the age of 27. At the start of the pandemic, he was Minister of Health, which was worth a resounding blunder when he claimed that Covid 19 was the 19th epidemic of its kind, when the number referred to the year of its emergence... He had him -even admitted to sometimes being “an idiot”… Until recent days, this father of two children and married to a nurse was Minister of Higher Education.

Irish media are already dubbing Simon Harris the “TikTok Taoiseach.” Humans have been making intense use of social networks for a long time. His publications on TikTok regularly generate more than a million “likes”, which makes him one of the most visible personalities in the country, particularly among young people. His detractors accuse him of “overdoing it”. And they call him “Leo 2.0”, a way of saying that he will only be an updated copy of his predecessor, considered disconnected from the realities of the country. Of Indian origin through his father's blood, openly homosexual, Leo Varadkar wanted to represent a new generation of Irish leaders, more modern and in tune with a changing era. The very conservative Irish society in fact legalized marriage for all in 2015, then abortion in 2018. But if his personality and his speech go down well with the urban middle class, they affect the working and rural sectors of the country less.

In his first intervention as head of Fine Gael, Simon Harris sought to defuse these criticisms by saying he was close to the daily concerns of the Irish. While claiming Irish reunification was a “legitimate political aspiration”, he said it was not his “priority”. And this Tuesday, after his appointment, he pledged “to work to improve the lives of all.” The Irish are more concerned about the housing crisis and immigration, which are also linked since the reception of migrants arouses the anger of those who are fighting to have a roof over their heads. In recent months, sharply increasing immigration has become the major political subject, sparking violent reactions and riots.

For the new Taoiseach, the challenge is heavy. Fine Gael, which governs in coalition with the centrist Fianna Fáil party and the Green party, is struggling in the polls even though it had already only come in third position in 2020. And the debacle of the last referendum accentuated the impression of a party little in tune with reality. For Gary Murphy, a professor at Dublin City University, “many Irish people are fed up with Fine Gael and think it has been in power for too long.” Simon Harris will have to face the ambitions of Sinn Fein, a pro-unification and left-wing party, which has made progress among the working classes by refocusing on their daily concerns.

Recently, however, Sin Fein has also shown signs of running out of steam in the polls. But the party of Mary Lou McDonald - former political branch of the IRA - intends to capitalize on its coming to power in Northern Ireland last February, a historic first in the British province.

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