Monday 19 November 2018

The Icarus minister: How Simon Harris flew too high too soon

Health Minister Simon Harris Picture: Gerry Mooney
Health Minister Simon Harris Picture: Gerry Mooney
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

'When you see how many people are being given the runaround by politicians, it's your duty to do your best to improve things if you can," said Simon Harris at the age of just 15 as he contemplated his future career in politics.

It was his own family's experience with his younger brother, Adam, who is affected by Asperger's Syndrome, that drove Simon to set up the North Wicklow Triple A Alliance in a bid to help the families of children with the condition, as well as those with Autism and Attention Deficit Disorder.

The reporter sent to interview the Greystones teenager noted that he looked "slightly older than his 15 years but when he starts talking it's hard to believe that this is a Junior Cert student", describing how it was "a mixture of disillusionment with public representatives and a genuine belief that it is possible to make a difference that fuels his ambition".

The young Harris had lobbied politicians to get better facilities to allow children with such disabilities to be integrated into mainstream education.

He had met with Ruairi Quinn but the teen had been circumspect, saying he "made a lot of promises. But I'll judge him when I see what he does".

Now some 15 years down the line, Mr Harris finds himself in a very powerful position and making the same dubious promises to the people of Ireland that he once poignantly doubted himself.

Health Minister Simon Harris is part of FG’s new generation. Photo: Tom Burke
Health Minister Simon Harris is part of FG’s new generation. Photo: Tom Burke

His rise to great political heights has been meteoric, dazzling - and to some almost puzzling. But can he fulfil his early promise - or will the man once dubbed 'the White Obama' by his Fine Gael colleagues prove in the long run to be, instead, the Icarus of Irish politics - the career politician who rose too fast to the top, never given the chance to gain vital experience along the way but sent plummeting - his wings prematurely singed by the searing sun of ambition, too much piled on his relatively young shoulders far too soon?

It is on his record that he will be judged, not his youth, and it is not yet clear enough what Simon Harris stands for. Under the normal apprenticeship system, he would still be cutting his teeth as a backbencher - but Enda Kenny tore up the rule book when he appointed him Minister for Health, perhaps seeing promise in Mr Harris's performance at the Public Accounts Meeting in October 2012, when he told a meeting on health to "chillax" and subsequently railed at how the country manages to spend billions on healthcare while challenges still exist.

"Money alone is clearly not the solution. We need to change the very way we deliver our health services if we really want to get on top of the budget problems," Mr Harris wrote shortly after.

Now the top position is his and so far, he has attempted to placate and cajole the public against the backdrop of the most alarming crisis in the broken healthcare system - where 500 people regularly languish on hospital trollies and agonised children are forced to appear on television in order to get the treatment they need.

Mr Harris's image as an honest broker determined to instigate change was dealt a severe blow by the leaking of a casual Whatsapp message last Sunday.

"He hasn't announced yet but Frances is encouraging him. He wants out of Health," was the dispatch blithely sent by Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan amid the Fine Gael leadership crisis.

In politics, the best way of leveraging a better job offer is by putting yourself forward for leadership and securing a bloc of votes which can then be traded.

Mr Flanagan later pleaded that it was a joke and Mr Harris swiftly moved to distance himself from the impression that, just eight months into the job, he was already desperate to find an 'out' from one of most heavyweight positions in the country - albeit one once witheringly described as 'Angola'.

Simon Harris celebrates as he wins his Dáil set in Greystones in 2011. Photo: Michael Kelly
Simon Harris celebrates as he wins his Dáil set in Greystones in 2011. Photo: Michael Kelly

But the inevitable criticism, particularly over the suitability of someone so young as a party leader, clearly smarted. "Age to me is immaterial," he subsequently said, rather huffily, at a speaking engagement at University College Galway. "I look to be judged on my job and the job that I am doing, and I am working as hard as I possibly can at that job."

It is, perhaps, surprising that Mr Harris was an early Fianna Fáil supporter, attending Cumann meetings even when too young to be a party member and at 16 was delivering leaflets for local Fianna Fáil TD Dick Roche.

But he switched his political allegiances during his time at the Dublin Institute of Technology where he studied journalism and French, and quickly found himself on the fast track, with a post as Frances Fitzgerald's Seanad Assistant from 2008. He secured a seat on Wicklow County Council in June 2009.

At 24, he was elected to the Dáil in 2011. As the youngest deputy, he was selected by Fine Gael to nominate Enda Kenny for Taoiseach, making an impressive maiden speech.

"Today, the period of mourning is over for Ireland. Today, we hang out our brightest colours and together, under Deputy Kenny's leadership, we move forward yet again as a nation," declared Mr Harris, in an echo of George Bernard Shaw's consoling letter to Michael Collins's sister, Joanna, after his assassination in 1922, when he had written: "So tear up your mourning and hang out your brightest colours in his honour."

Mr Harris was elevated from the backbenches to Minister of State at the Department of Finance, with special responsibility for the OPW, in 2014 and ran in the South constituency for the European Parliament elections in 2014 , coming close.

It was only in January 2016 that he arguably saw his first political storm, amid the very real desperation of the floods, when he was forced to deny accusations that the government had left €13m in the budget for flood relief works in 2015 unspent - while the public was quick to spot that he had secured flood defences in his own constituency.

It had an upshot - raising Mr Harris's profile, with broadcaster Gay Byrne extolling how the young minister left him "gasping in admiration", describing him as a "smart young cove…He has an answer for everything. He's afraid of nobody."

But so early in his career, the task of Health hulks large.

It emerged yesterday that the HSE had reached agreement with Siptu and the industrial action planned for March 7 would be called off - but at what financial cost to the taxpayer?

And with the nurses' strike still threatening, Mr Harris may be forced to again get out the national chequebook.

News is expected next week that the planning will be lodged for the new national maternity hospital - but good news comes dropping slow in Health.

Perhaps too slowly for a young man in a hurry.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section