Wednesday 15 August 2018

Varadkar: I was under pressure to sack Harris

Health minister accused of being 'yes man' to civil servants by Cabinet colleagues

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris during the government press conference on the cervical cancer controversy
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris during the government press conference on the cervical cancer controversy
DILEMMA: Leo Varadkar
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has revealed he was under pressure from his closest supporters to sack Minister for Health Simon Harris after the Fine Gael leadership contest.

The comments from a soon-to-be-published biography on the Taoiseach come as Fine Gael Cabinet ministers last week began to privately brief against Mr Harris over his handling of the health system. In Leo Varadkar - A Very Modern Taoiseach, the Fine Gael leader says he had a "strange relationship" with Mr Harris before the leadership campaign and decided to keep him in Cabinet after an intervention from former Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald.

''A lot of my supporters wanted me to sack him and that would have freed up a seat around the table. I decided not to. Frances certainly spoke up for him and he is a capable guy,'' he says.

The Taoiseach also says the Minister for Health "still gets the blame" for the "Judas Iscariot" attack on Mr Varadkar during the leadership race. Mr Harris, who supported Tanaiste Simon Coveney during the contest, has always denied he was behind the comments.

A source close to Mr Harris yesterday said the minister's relationship with the Taoiseach has "really strengthened" since the campaign. "They are in almost daily contact and a mutual respect and understanding has really developed," the source said.

The Taoiseach's comments follow a week of controversy for Mr Harris, who was criticised over health service waiting lists, hospital trolley numbers and the uncosted introduction of the Slaintecare implementation plan.

Minister for Health Simon Harris
Minister for Health Simon Harris

Cabinet ministers are also growing frustrated with Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy over the escalating homelessness crisis after it emerged six children slept in a garda station. One senior Fine Gael minister said neither minister has "control of their departments" and both are failing to stand up to senior civil servants. "They are not ministers, they are just yes men to the civil service," the Cabinet minister said.

Another Cabinet minister said the Taoiseach should promote "experience over youth" if he reshuffles his Cabinet before the next general election, adding that "grumpy old men have a real role" to play in government and should not be side-lined for younger ministers.

The minister said Mr Murphy, Mr Harris and Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan were in the "drop zone" since last year but only Mr Flanagan has got a handle of his brief.

The attack on the two youngest members of Cabinet from their own party colleagues will present the Taoiseach with a dilemma should he decide to reshuffle his Cabinet.

Meanwhile, in the first biography on the Taoiseach, Mr Varadkar discusses for the first time accusations made against him in the Fine Gael leadership campaign.

With rumours circulating that Mr Varadkar was orchestrating a campaign to oust Taoiseach Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader, the Irish Independent ran a front-page story under the headline 'Varadkar Panics Over FG "Judas" Accusations'. An unnamed Cabinet minister was quoted comparing Mr Varadkar to Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus Christ.

In a interview for the biography, Mr Varadkar says Mr Harris ''still gets the blame'' for the off-the-record comment, adding, ''I'm not sure if it was him or not''. Harris always insisted it was not him.

''Simon and I would have had a strange relationship around that time but now we get on very well as Taoiseach and minister. We have never really discussed the leadership campaign. Maybe we should," he says.

Sunday Independent

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