Monday 16 September 2019

Kevin Doyle on this weekend's big political winner: How Simon Harris moved from enemy to ally

Health Minister looks to be a true asset for the Taoiseach as a general election looms

Health Minister Simon Harris speaking to the media at a Together for Yes billboard launch in Dublin, ahead of the referendum. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Health Minister Simon Harris speaking to the media at a Together for Yes billboard launch in Dublin, ahead of the referendum. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Simon Harris was never supposed to be health minister - twice. Ironically he got the job first time around because of a secret showdown between the current and the former Taoiseach.

The ministry was Leo Varadkar's but when he laid down terms and conditions for continuing in the role after the 2016 election, Enda Kenny never even rang him back.

Instead he shipped Varadkar off to the Department of Social Protection where Harris was originally due to learn the Cabinet trade.

At 29 years old, the Wicklow TD was handed an office in Hawkins House that can make or break political careers. Fast-forward to June last year when Harris emerged as the only senior minister to back Simon Coveney in the Fine Gael leadership contest.

It was a serious miscalculation, as the vast bulk of his colleagues lined up behind Varadkar.

After the Taoiseach's victory the Harris camp were not just seriously dejected, they really believed their rising star was about to fall to earth.

Rumours flew around Leinster House that a vengeful Varadkar would cast him aside in order to facilitate one of his own. Ultimately Coveney convinced his opponent it was better to keep his enemies close.

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (left), Minister for Health Simon Harris and Senator Catherine Noone wave to the crowd at Dublin Castle. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

One source recalled: "As Varadkar proved the previous year, the only thing worse than a demotion is being left in the Department of Health".

How Did Your Constituency Vote?

Final Results Constituencies declared: 40/40

Map Key

Yes 55% 50% 55% No

And so for a second time Harris was appointed Health Minister by default.

In his first speech as Taoiseach, Varadkar signalled he would be giving responsibility for dealing with the Eighth Amendment to Harris. This was interpreted as an extra drop of poison being added to the chalice.

However, in an interview with this reporter days later, Harris made it clear he was taking up the challenge.

"I want to be the minister who brings forward the legislation to enable this important referendum in 2018," he said.

Constituencies with the strongest Yes/No vote

The table below shows the top five constituencies with the strongest vote for or against repealing the Eighth Amendment.

Dublin Bay South 78.49% 21.51%

Dún Laoghaire 77.06% 22.94%

Dublin Fingal 76.96% 23.04%

Dublin Central 76.51% 23.49%

Dublin Rathdown 76.10% 23.90%

Donegal 48.13% 51.87%

"This is an issue that, as a nation, we now need to deal with definitively."

His determination to resolve an age-old question was in stark contrast to the commitment he gave a few days before the 2011 general election. Back then, as a first-time candidate, he told the Pro-Life Campaign he was 'proud' to share their views.

"Please be assured of my support. I need number-one votes on Friday so I can be in a position to support these positions in Dail Eireann," he said in an email.

Harris's tenure in Health has followed the familiar pattern of his predecessors: Trolley crises, HSE incompetence, budgetary problems and tragedies. Watching him being mobbed by young women as he arrived at Dublin Castle yesterday, it's hard to imagine that it was just over a month ago when the CervicalCheck scandal broke.

For the guts of a month he was fire-fighting on several levels. He was seen as decisive for quickly declaring no confidence in the board of CervicalCheck but then struggled as he defended the position of HSE Director General Tony O'Brien. There were sleepless nights as feared what information might appear in the media the next morning.

In the background he was constantly tick-tacking with Vicky Phelan, whose legal case unleashed the public backlash against the health services and indeed the Government.

Ms Phelan has always spoken positively of Harris in a way she hasn't about other politicians, including the Taoiseach. As the controversy refused to go away, Harris secretly pulled out of a series of Together for Yes events in the early part of the repeal campaign.

It was the worst possible start for the Government side who felt paralysed by the knowledge that their plan to make the referendum about women's healthcare could spectacularly backfire. But Ms Phelan came out in favour of repeal and gradually Harris felt able to speak about topics other than CervicalCheck.

Sources say he made a conscious decision to become the male face of the campaign, turning up at press conferences day after day even when he wasn't scheduled to.

Last Monday, a media opportunity with the masters of the two main maternity hospitals, Fergal Malone and Rhona Mahony, was almost an hour late starting because the minister decided he wanted to take part.

The delay was not well received by the journalists present but when he eventually arrived Harris delivered a series of quotable attacks, including a spirited one on the Catholic Church. His qualification is actually in journalism, so he knows how to provide good copy.

Then came the RTE Prime Time debate which descended into farce as Cora Sherlock - who had for weeks been dragging a 'Simon Harris podium' around Dublin and challenging him to a debate - failed to show. His colleagues know he's a good man to send out in a crisis but this was different. It was his moment in high-definition. Even Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald agreed he won "hands down".

What followed is something as unpredictable as the referendum result. Twitter lit up with women talking about how they fancied Harris.

"Ireland's version of America's Trump election surprise and the UK's Brexit vote is that we all fancy Simon Harris," tweeted one.

And when he arrived at Dublin Castle yesterday, Harris was confirmed a feminist hero by women, young and old. Some were shrieking, some were crying. All were seeking selfies.

SELFIE: Minister Simon Harris with Seana Glennon and Beatrice White at the count centre in the RDS. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Two women looking on from the fringes of huddle, one woman sympathetically remarked to her friend: "He looks tired. I wonder has he slept at all lately."

The minister told the global media it was " an emotional day in more ways than I could have imagined".

On Tuesday he will bring a memo to Cabinet seeking permission to draw up legislation for abortion in Ireland. And by Wednesday we can expect normal service will have resumed in the department famously described by Brian Cowen as Angola.

But for today, Harris must be wondering about the fickleness of politics. In the space of a month, he went from fighting for the Government's survival to potentially the most popular politician in the country.

At age 31, he now has a tagline which will follow him until the end of his political career in the same way Noel Browne is linked to the Mother and Child Scheme or Micheal Martin to the smoking ban.

And he has moved from Varadkar's enemy to a very valuable asset ahead of an inevitable general election.

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