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Simon Harris sizzles on social media but voters need substance

The new Fine Gael leader needs to tell voters where he stands and how his policies would make their lives better, particularly younger voters caught in the housing crisis

As Simon Harris heads for the Taoiseach’s office, all the talk is of his ability to communicate and relate to younger voters. And of how he can freshen up the Cabinet with a few new ministers and thus win further favour with the public who, as Sinn Féin never tire of telling us, are looking for “change”. This is all understandable with European and local elections approaching. But what will Harris actually do in policy terms? What does he stand for and how will be make people’s lives better? None of this is seen as relevant at the moment, as Fine Gael persuades itself that being visible on social media is what it is all about.

But you can only sell the sizzle for so long. Harris needs to tell voters what he stands for and how his policies would make their lives better, particularly the 20-somethings caught in the middle of the housing crisis and the squeezed 30-45-year-olds.

Leo Varadkar occupied an interesting space in his time in Government. His consistent calls for lower income tax – “abolishing” the USC, introducing a new 30 per cent rate and so on – sometimes seemed at odds with his colleagues, or at least more extreme. In reality, while the rate at which people enter the higher 40 per cent income tax rate has been increased, the vast bulk of additional resources on successive budget days have gone towards higher State spending. The shortcomings in health and housing and the wider demands to build public services for a rising population have led to a bigger State – and this looks certain to continue.

Political support for a smaller State and significantly lower taxes for those who “get up early in the morning” has more or less disappeared in the face of these pressures – and of Sinn Féin’s success in arguing that Government must do more to solve people’s problems. And the large influx of corporate tax has allowed the Government to increase spending while moving the budget into surplus, making some concessions on income taxes and – in the last budget – extending the universal cost-of-living supports to households. There are tough questions ahead on how to pay for a bigger State, but Irish politics will not face up to them until it has to.


We have little enough clue where Harris will land in policy terms, particularly – if the Coalition holds together that long – in what would be the last budget before the general election. The first key sign will be whether Paschal Donohoe stays as Minister for Public Expenditure. The rather grudging-sounding briefings from those reportedly close to Harris are that Donohoe can’t be moved because of his position as president of the Eurogroup, the powerful committee of euro zone finance ministers.

A better reason might be that he knows how to put a budget together and has managed, with Fianna Fáil Minister for Finance Michael McGrath, to form a central and stable part of the administration. If Fine Gael wants to sell the message in the run up to the next general election that it is the party to maintain stability in the public finances – in contrast to whatever it claims Sinn Féin might do – then Donohoe is its key weapon. His wider experience of the unpredictable issues facing Ireland on the European and world stage also needs to be central to key decisions. This should not be lost for the sake of a “freshen up”.

It will be interesting to see Harris outline his policy platform – what he actually plans to do. His record in office does not give many significant clues – in health and now higher education he has, like all spending ministers, fought for cash and, in his latter role, has focused on helping parents through cutting third-level charges. Harris outlined a funding plan for third-level education, but the hard yards of implementation remain to be done. On the economy, as far as we know so far, he does not have Leo-style tax-cutting instincts and is likely to focus more on spending plans.

Time is short for this administration and it would be understandable – even wise – to focus on a few priorities for the remaining months. The new taoiseach will not want it to be seen to be “more of the same” – but inevitably, in large part, it will be. He will have to decide what the heart of his policy’s position will be in the next general election – a reason why Fine Gael is different. It is a far from straightforward exercise. What can the party promise to actually solve the problems people face and to address the disconnect between an economy whose top-line figures are so good, but which is facing a housing crisis – alienating a significant part of the population – and inadequate public services in areas such as health?

Harris can, no doubt, bring new energy to a tired-looking Government, but can he bring fresh ideas? If not, then the risk for Fine Gael is that after a brief sugar rush in the polls, voters will decide that there is nothing new on offer here to address their particular concerns. Is their any steak behind the Harris sizzle?

The “sell” for Harris will not be easy. He needs to persuade voters that Fine Gael can keep the economy broadly on track. Their record here gives a basis to do this, though the party’s credibility would be damaged if the Government tries to “buy” the election by, for example, extending the universal cost-of-living supports for another year, even though inflation has dropped. This will be a crucial call – and not an easy one. Interestingly, the Government has already decided to limit its own room for manoeuvre in the budget through new legislation, approved by Cabinet this week, which would effectively take more than €6 billion off the table and direct it into two new investment funds.

Crucially, the Government also needs to convince voters that it can get “stuff” done more effectively – houses built, an improved health service, more school places and so on. After 13 years in office, it will be difficult for Harris to persuade the electorate that Fine Gael has a new energy and drive and ideas to make things happen more quickly. But this will be the crunch point of the next general election. How can a strong economy be turned into something that delivers for more people?