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Ireland: Simon Harris elected new prime minister

April 9, 2024

Ireland's parliament has voted in Simon Harris as the country's youngest ever prime minister. Harris, 37, replaces Leo Varadkar after he abruptly quit last month citing personal and political reasons.

Simon Harris clapping and smiling at a party conference
Simon Harris secured the leadership of the Fine Gael party on March 24Image: Eamon Ward/AP Photo/picture alliance

Simon Harris has become the Republic of Ireland's youngest ever prime minister, or taoiseach, after being elected to succeed party colleague Leo Varadkar.

The 37-year-old former health and higher education minister, best known for coordinating Ireland's initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, received 88 votes from lawmakers, with 69 against.

Fine Gael party leader Harris will now travel to the official residence of the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, where his appointment will be confirmed.

Harris' predecessor both as Fine Gael leader and taoiseach, Varadkar, abruptly stepped down last month citing personal and political reasons. Varadkar formally resigned at an audience with President Higgins on Monday evening, paving the way for Harris' election on Tuesday.

Who is Ireland's new prime minister, Simon Harris?

Born in Greystones, County Wicklow, on Ireland's east coast, about 30 kilometres (18 miles) south of Dublin, Harris quit university aged 20 to work as a political aide, was elected to parliament at just 24 and was handed a cabinet post before he turned 30.

At Fine Gael's annual party conference on Saturday, the father-of-two outlined his focus on law and order, supporting small businesses and reconnecting with rural voters.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announces surprise resignation

What are Simon Harris' political challenges?

But Harris takes charge of a coalition government which has less than a year until an election which could see the opposition left-wing, Irish Republican Sinn Fein take power for the first time.

Recent polling data shows Fine Gael on just 21% of the vote, ahead of coalition partners Fianna Fail (16%) but behind Sinn Fein (26%).

Harris will face the same deep-rooted problems, including unease at record numbers of asylum seekers but most notably a severe shortage of affordable housing.

Data on Monday showed asking prices for Irish homes rose by 6.5% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2024, the fastest rate of growth since 2022.

An opinion poll on Sunday showed housing remained Irish voters' top concern, and Harris has pledged to fix the crisis "once and for all."

Harris is due to announce a reshuffle of the Fine Gael members of the cabinet, which therefore won't include the foreign or finance ministries, but a coalition agreement leaves little room for major new policy initiatives.

mf/wmr (AFP, Reuters, dpa)