Can Ireland's Youngest Prime Minister Solve The Nation's Toughest Challenges?

By Jennifer Wentworth | Wednesday, 10 April 2024 11:10 PM
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In a historic moment for Ireland, Simon Harris, at the age of 37, took the oath as the youngest-ever prime minister on Tuesday.

He pledged to infuse "new ideas, a new energy and a new empathy to public life." Harris succeeds his Fine Gael Party colleague, Leo Varadkar, who tendered his resignation nearly three weeks prior. Harris now helms a government that has been under severe scrutiny for its management of the country's housing crisis, escalating crime rates, cost of living, and a mass immigration policy that has catapulted Ireland's non-national population to the fourth largest in the European Union, as per Eurostat data.

Harris secured his position as Taoiseach, the Irish term for prime minister, with an 88 to 69 vote in Ireland's principal chamber, Dáil Éireann. He garnered support from independent lawmakers, as well as his Fianna Fáil and Green Party coalition partners. The tripartite alliance has been in power since 2020, with their term set to conclude in approximately 12 months.

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In his address to the Dáil, Harris emphasized, "Now is an opportune time to build a new social contract – one which renews our promise as a Republic. To create equality of opportunity. To support those who need the state the most. To protect our hard-earned economic success. To use its benefits to deliver tangible outcomes to society." He pledged to serve as a prime minister for all, striving to enhance the lives of every citizen.

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Harris evoked the spirit of hope and optimism that defines the Irish narrative, urging his countrymen not to succumb to pessimism and despair about their future. He stressed, "We can and must rise above partisan politics by working together to solve the greatest challenges of our time. The people expect us to do more. We should demand of ourselves no less."

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At the Fine Gael annual conference on Saturday, Harris outlined his focus on law and order, support for small businesses, and reconnecting with rural voters. He also committed to resolving the housing crisis "once and for all," echoing the promises of his predecessors. He proposed extending support to developers and first-time buyers, acknowledging that the necessary increase in supply would take years.

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Harris is expected to announce a reshuffle of his Fine Gael team, which occupies seven of the 18 seats in the cabinet, on Tuesday. Additionally, over ten Fine Gael lawmakers have announced their decision not to seek re-election.

The liberal government is striving to bounce back after two constitutional amendments that Harris supported were rejected in a referendum vote. These amendments aimed to expand the definition of family and eliminate language about a woman’s role in the home.

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Harris' ascension to power coincides with weekly protests against migrant centers being built in small towns and villages, and a new hate speech bill that has drawn international attention has been stalled in the legislature. Meanwhile, the number of homeless people in Ireland reached a record 13,531 in January.

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Harris, who was first elected to parliament at 24 and appointed to the cabinet before he turned 30, has had a remarkable political ascent. He is a year younger than Varadkar was when he first assumed the role of prime minister in 2017.

Harris previously served as Minister for Health, where he successfully passed legislation aimed at reducing alcohol consumption by implementing statutory minimum prices on alcohol and restrictions on advertising. He was lauded for his management of Ireland's early pandemic response. However, his handling of the cervical cancer scandal, where several women received incorrect smear test results, and the escalating costs of the yet-to-be-built National Children's Hospital, drew criticism. He survived a motion of no-confidence vote on the latter issue.

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Harris also oversaw Ireland’s legalization of abortion in 2018, which permitted abortion under specified circumstances.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, the head of the country’s main opposition party, argued that Harris’ election does not signify change, and she called for a general election to be held. "Deputy Harris offers and represents more of the same. He sat at cabinet for eight years presiding over the very policies that have seen a collapse in home ownership and skyrocketing rents," McDonald stated.

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