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Miriam Lord: Not so much TikToks as tactics are secret behind taoiseach-to-be Simon Harris

World tilts on its axis as Dáil gets set for Leo Varadkar’s replacement

There’s the new Fine Gael leader, surrounded by ancient monuments, holding forth to the media.

But enough about the party’s annual conference, which isn’t happening until next month.

This was Simon Harris’s first outing as taoiseach-to-be since he bagged exclusive rights to Coronation Street by seeing off all credible contenders for the Fine Gael crown in a five-hour blitz on Thursday morning.

Now the political sphere of influence has tilted on its axis. On Friday morning, Harris visited the Royal County and a very discernible scent of power was in air.


It’s sausages.

The new leader of Fine Gael (official from Sunday afternoon) and near-future taoiseach stood in a hotel foyer off a roundabout on the M1 motorway, surrounded by photographs of megalithic tombs and ruined castles, having just addressed guests at a fundraising breakfast for Meath East councillor Sharon Tolan (€80 for the Full Irish, bottomless coffee and complimentary speeches from two Government Ministers).

Kick-off in Gormanston was at 8am and she got a great turnout.

TV satellite vans in the car park, cameras and microphones inside the emergency doors and the cranky presence of a clatter of sleepy-eyed political correspondents were an unexpected bonus. But not as much as the presence of the outgoing Minister for Higher Education, whose stock has soared considerably since Sharon fortuitously nabbed him, along with local Minister Helen McEntee, for her top table.

After breakfast, the incoming boss made his way from the Whitewood Suite to meet the media, a large entourage of exhausted-looking advisers and giddy local luminaries in his wake. A Garda close-protection officer kept her eyes on the gathering

The hacks stepped forward hungrily when he walked up to the mics.

The Donut of Power sidled seamlessly into place behind him, party supporters staring unblinkingly at the cameras. Sharon and Helen took up position in the front row.

Sharon looked absolutely thrilled but then she wasn’t the one grappling with a gathering controversy over the Garda Commissioner, a wronged policeman and the riveting tale of a missing pushbike.

Simon looked around at the scene.

Hair immaculate, best suit, pristine white shirt and the good silk tie. He’ll need a new wardrobe at short notice but there will be people who can help with that sort of thing now.

Aah yes. So this is it.

We so wanted him to look up and roar: “Look Ma, top of the world!”

But he didn’t.

Still in shock.

Hire or fire

Fortunately, his ability to talk was not affected so he was able to expand on his vision for the party while politely sidestepping questions about who he might fire or hire when he gets into the taoiseach’s office because nominations for the job are still open and he isn’t actually leader yet.

Channelling the enthusiasm of former taoiseach Enda Kenny, who promised to “electrify” the party when he took over, Harris said he would be adopting a “can-do” approach to rewiring Fine Gael by “injecting a level of energy”.

“To anybody who thinks this party is tired, to anyone who thinks this party lacks energy, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” he declared, sounding like silent movie star Al Jolson heralding the arrival of the talkies. Which it is.

Life has been a blur for Harris since Wednesday morning when Leo Varadkar strolled into the routine weekly pre-Cabinet meeting of FG Ministers, took his seat at the table in the Sycamore Room and said quietly to his colleagues: “There’s something personal I want to tell you.”

He announced his resignation in a very emotional speech outside Government Buildings.

Some 24 hours later, following a stunning campaign blitz, the Wicklow TD was the only candidate for the job.

On a chilly Friday morning in Gormanston, he is still replaying Wednesday’s events in his head, telling reporters he couldn’t imagine anybody getting out of bed on that morning and coming into work thinking the Taoiseach was about to announce his resignation.

“I was in the room with Minister McEntee when he told us and I don’t think we’ll ever forget that sense of collective shock and surprise – the air just went out of the room.”

Two days on, in an empty meeting room in the City North hotel, he is still trying to make sense of it. Pacing the carpet like an amateur sleuth, piecing together the events on the morning of the 20th.

There was the buffet breakfast as usual. The rashers and sausages. About 10 people in the room. And then Leo, Leo just ambles in and sits down.

“I mean he was there, and I was here and Helen was there and…”

Nobody, except Simon Coveney, knows what is coming next.

“And then he goes: there’s something personal I want to tell you… And he just said it. He just said it.”

Simon Coveney goes into deputy leader mode, keeping the meeting going while everyone else is reeling.

We all know the sequence of events after that.

Gobsmacked colleagues

After informing his Fine Gael colleagues (Leo told Tánaiste Micheál Martin and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan the night before), the Taoiseach goes into the Cabinet meeting and breaks the news to gobsmacked Fianna Fáil and Green Party colleagues.

Later that day in the Dáil, Micheál Martin pays a gracious tribute to his Coalition partner and remarks on the courage it took for him to make his decision. It was a hugely difficult one.

Later, we hear that before Leo went outside, he attempted a few run-throughs of his script in front of some of his staff and inner circle.

He kept breaking down before the end.

When he finally went before the cameras – nearly 15 minutes late – and began to read, the strain and tension on the faces of the six Ministers around him and his private staff on the margins spoke volumes.

But this is politics. It is now Friday morning and Simon Harris is going to be Taoiseach and is still trying to come to terms with what just happened.

“I’m still in shock. There is still this sense of disbelief,” he says. “I mean, in a way, there is a feeling of ‘this shouldn’t be happening to me… this is not supposed to happen’.”

What he means is that fellas like him don’t usually make it to the top job. He isn’t from one of the top schools, he didn’t finish third level, his family has no political connections and he doesn’t come from money.

He says his parents – Bart, a taxi driver, and Mary, a retired special needs teacher – are delighted for him. Apart from doing leaflet drops for their son, they are “very much non-political”.

His wife Caoimhe, no less than himself, is in shock. Their two children, Cillian (2) and Saoirse (5), haven’t a clue what’s going on. Simon’s sister Gemma sent him a short video of the kids being told about his big new job.

“Daddy is the peacock,” Saoirse says proudly.

It’s a long way from 2011 when the new Fine Gael taoiseach asked his youngest TD to nominate him in the Dáil.

“Today, we hang out our brightest colours and together, under Enda Kenny’s leadership, we move forward yet again as a nation,” read this gangly unknown from Greystones.

The 37-year-old Harris, who will become Ireland’s youngest taoiseach when the Dáil reconvenes in a couple of weeks, remembers it well. “That bloody hair and the suit and shirt that didn’t fit me properly. I was so nervous.”

He won’t say who he will chose to do the honours for him on April 9th.

In the City North hotel, a pile of leaflets for a forthcoming event rests on a shelf behind him.

“The Out of the Blue Career Horizons Expo.”

It’s next month – a bit late for the taoiseach in waiting.

Things are changing already. People are treating him differently now. “I said to someone yesterday evening: ‘can you meet me next week if you’re free?’ And they said, ‘If I’m free? You don’t have to ask that any more. You ask and we do it.’”

Friday was a day for settling in. Breakfast in Gormanstown. A coffee morning in Lucan.

And a stroll in Stephen’s Green after lunch.

People keep stopping to talk. A local woman takes it upon herself to point him out to tourists, who are delighted at this unique selfie opportunity. Then the Lord Mayor rocks up to say hello.

But politics never opens one door without closing another.

Around the same time, Josepha Madigan announces she is resigning from her job as Minister of State in the Department of Education and will not be contesting the next election.

Much to unpick

Leo Varadkar issues a lovely statement, thanking her for her hard work and wishing her all the best for the future.

His second paragraph contains the most arresting opening lines we’ve ever read in a press release from a taoiseach.

“We first met at a Strictly Come Dancing charity fundraiser in South Dublin back in 2015 when she was a candidate for the Dáil. My partner, Matt, was one of the competitors. Shane Ross TD, then in opposition, was a judge. We hit it off and have been friends ever since.”

So much to unpick there.

As Josepha bows out, the talk in Fine Gael is that Cllr Maeve O’Connell is tipped to run in Dublin-Rathdown alongside the party’s other TD in the constituency, Neale Richmond. If Maeve is returned she will join her husband Colm Brophy in the Dáil if he retains his seat in Dublin South West.

Politicians from all sides are still absorbed by the extraordinary events of the past week.

On Thursday, Marc Ó Cathasaigh, the Green Party TD for Waterford, was an interested observer as Simon Harris – now being dubbed The TikTok Taoiseach – swept all before him.

By his reckoning, the Minister for Higher Education (a non-controversial posting where he could cultivate TDs and Senators) triumphed by deploying old-school methods.

“It was less TikToks and more tactics that swung it for Simon.”

He’s right.

But that was the easy part.

The date for the closing of nominations has been brought forward by a day. He will be leader of Fine Gael by Sunday afternoon.

A steep and dangerous learning curve lies ahead.

Miriam Lord

Miriam Lord

Miriam Lord is a colour writer and columnist with The Irish Times. She writes the Dáil Sketch, and her review of political happenings, Miriam Lord’s Week, appears every Saturday