Ireland's Simon Harris elected as youngest ever prime minister after predecessor's abrupt resignation

Simon Harris became Ireland’s youngest-ever prime minister on Tuesday and vowed to bring “new ideas, a new energy and a new empathy to public life.”

Harris, 37, succeeds Fine Gael Party colleague Leo Varadkar, who announced his resignation nearly three weeks ago, and takes the reins of a government that is facing sharp criticism for its handling of the country’s housing shortage, rising crime, the cost of living, as well as its mass immigration policy, which has resulted in Ireland’s non-national population skyrocketing to be the fourth largest in the European Union, according to Eurostat.

Harris was elected prime minister, known as Taoiseach, on an 88 to 69 vote in Ireland’s principal chamber, Dáil Éireann, where he secured support from some independent lawmakers, as well as his Fianna Fáil and Green Party coalition partners. The three parties have shared power since 2020, and their term will come to an end in about 12 months’ time. 

“Now is an opportune time to build a new social contract – one which renews our promise as a Republic,” Harris told the Dáil. “To create equality of opportunity. To support those who need the state the most. To protect our hard-earned economic success. To use its benefits to deliver tangible outcomes to society.”

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Ireland prime minister Simon Harris

New Irish Prime Minster Simon Harris is greeted by colleagues and family members as he leaves the Dail in Dublin on Tuesday. (Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images)

He vowed to be a prime minister for all and to help to improve the lives of everyone in the country.

“The Irish story is a story of hope and of optimism. Once again, we must ensure it lights our way forward. Let us not make the mistake of giving into pessimism and despair about our future.

“We can and must rise above partisan politics by working together to solve the greatest challenges of our time. The people expect us to do more. We should demand of ourselves no less.” 

At Saturday’s Fine Gael annual conference, Harris spelled out his focus on law and order, helping small businesses and reconnecting with rural voters. He also pledged to fix the housing crisis “once and for all” – something his predecessors have also promised – proposing an extension to support for developers and first-time buyers while acknowledging the required boost to supply would take years.

Harris is due to announce a reshuffle of his Fine Gael team – which makes up seven of the 18 seats in the cabinet – on Tuesday. Additionally, more than 10 Fine Gael lawmakers have said they will not run for re-election.

Biden and Varadkar at White House

Simon Harris replaces Leo Varadkar, pictured here with President Biden last month. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)

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The liberal government is looking to recover after two constitutional amendments Harris supported were quashed in a referendum vote. The amendments would have broadened the definition of family and removed language about a woman’s role in the home. 

Harris’ rise to power comes as protests against migrant centers being constructed in small towns and villages are a weekly occurrence, while a new hate speech bill, which has garnered international attention, has stalled in the legislature. Meanwhile, the number of homeless people in Ireland hit 13,531 in January, a new record.

Harris was first elected to parliament at 24 and appointed to cabinet before he turned 30 in a remarkable political rise. He is a year younger than Varadkar was when he was first appointed prime minister in 2017.

Irish PM Simon Harris and President Higgins

Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris, right, receives the seal of office from the Irish President Michael D. Higgins on Tuesday. (Damien Storan/PA Images via Getty Images)

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He previously served as Minster for Health, when he successfully passed legislation intended to reduce alcohol consumption by mandating statutory minimum prices on alcohol and restrictions on advertising, while he was praised for taking control of Ireland’s early pandemic response.

However, he was criticized for his handling of the cervical cancer scandal after several women received incorrect smear test results and the ballooning costs of the yet-to-be-built National Children’s Hospital. He survived a motion of no-confidence vote on the latter. 

He was also the minister who oversaw Ireland’s legalization of abortion in 2018, which permitted abortion under specified circumstances.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, the head of the country’s main opposition party, said Harris’ election does not represent change, and she called for a general election to be held.

“Deputy Harris offers and represents more of the same. He sat at cabinet for eight years presiding over the very policies that have seen a collapse in home ownership and skyrocketing rents,” McDonald said.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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