independent

Saturday 25 October 2014

Our 'most senior Junior Minister'

Published 26/07/2014 | 12:00

Simon Harris, Fine Gael deputy for Wicklow at Leinster House yesterday

Wicklow TD Simon Harris got a phone call last Tuesday which propelled him into the upper echelons on Leinster House.

Not only was he given a junior ministry in last week's Cabinet reshuffle, but his new post in the Department of Finance is seen by many as the plum role. At the age of 27, the Greystones man is not just the country's youngest TD but effectively our most senior junior minister.

Although widely tipped in the lead-up to the reshuffle to receive a junior ministry, few had any inkling he would receive the post previously held by Brian Hayes, which sees him take on Special Responsibility for the Office of Public Works (OPW), Public Procurement and International Banking, including IFSC.

Speaking on Monday, Deputy Harris said that despite the speculation in the media, he was in the dark until he received the call last week.

'On Tuesday morning I got a phone call from the Taoiseach's Office asking to meet him, so I suppose I knew then I was in line for something. But prior to that there had been so much speculation but you just don't know until the call comes. I had seen a list of between ten and 12 different names that were supposed to be in line and, in reality, you know that it's speculation.

'When I got the call I knew then, but I still didn't know what I was going to be told until I met with the Taoiseach,' he said. 'My first reaction was excitement, really. I felt very honoured as well and, while not overwhelmed, it does take a while for it all to sink in. It's a big area of responsibility and I've been spending the last week getting to grips with what the role entails.

'I'm also extremely grateful for the opportunity. It was quite emotional as well. There's many experienced TDs who never get the opportunity to serve as Minister so it's emotional in that respect.'

Having only been elected in 2011, to be given such a career boosting role during his first term is another indicator that the Wicklow man is set for an illustrious political career.

The official announcement was made on Tuesday afternoon in the Dáil but Deputy Harris said the news of his appointment quickly filtered through the hallowed walls of Leinster House.

'Leinster House is very porous place,' he said, 'so within minutes, the news was out on Twitter. People see you walking across to the Taoiseach's office so they have a fair idea and news travels quickly.'

The first phone calls made by the Wicklow man after meeting with the Taoiseach were to his parents Mary and Bart, and girlfriend Caoimhe.

'They were all obviously delighted for me too,' he said, although his new role won't spare him from pulling his weight at home he joked.

His parents and younger siblings, Gemma and Adam, headed to Leinster House last Tuesday to hear the official announcement although there was little time to celebrate as an hour after the announcement Deputy Harris was addressing the Seanad on the NTMA bill. While there was no celebratory shindig, he said he did 'have the opportunity to mark it with my family privately'.

Much has been made of his young age and Deputy Harris said he is indifferent to the focus on his age.

'I feel indifferent to it really. I suppose I feel age is immaterial and you should be judged on how well you can do a job. Nobody would ask an older TD if they were too old for the role. Saying that, I understand the interest in my age. My generation has already paid a high price in this recession, as have all other generations, and we do have to play our part to get the country back on track so I feel that my age isn't a problem.'

While the Dáil is currently on its summer break, it won't be all sunshine, sand and relaxation for Deputy Harris, who has dived into his new role straight away. 'I've spent the past week looking at the responsibilities I'll have and understanding the brief fully. Then I'll be engaging with various stakeholder', he said.

However he will get a little rest and relaxation as he heads off to France next week for a week-long holiday. 'I'm heading to France next week for a brief holiday and after that it will be back to work again.'

Although reluctant to give a clearly defined plan of action, Deputy Harris said there are certain items he wants to tackle.

'In terms of the OPW, I want to look at the whole issue of flooding. Not just looking at addressing problems when they arise but to prevent flooding from occurring as much as possible. For Wicklow, that will mean working on the Dargle Flood Protection Scheme and the Flood Relief Scheme in Arklow. The provision of a Coast Guard station in Greystones is another area I will be looking at.

'Obviously the OPW is responsible for state buildings are well so looking at places like the Glendalough Visitor Centre and attracting more visitors there will be another key area.

'In terms of public procurement, I'll be looking at how we can help SMEs get Government contracts. There was a slight increase in this last year but more needs to be done so I want to work with businesses to help them secure such contracts.

'In the broader interest I want to do the best I can as the economy begins to recover so that it recovers in a fair way. We have a very high rate of marginal tax in Ireland at 52 per cent which is one of the highest in the OECD.'

Deputy Harris said while it is important not to give false hope, it is also important to make going to work work for people.'

For the Garden County, having a minister can only be viewed as a positive development and Deputy Harris said the reaction from people across the county has been very heartening. 'We haven't had a Minister in Wicklow since 2011 and there hasn't been a Fine Gael Minister since the 1980s. I think generally people in Wicklow are happy that the county is being acknowledged and view it as a positive thing.

He also said that the five Wicklow TDs have a very good working relationship which he feels has served the county well.

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