Simon Harris

Simon HarrisImage source, Getty Images/NurPhoto

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Simon Harris, now 37, organised his first political meeting when he was a 16-year-old schoolboy

By Eimear Flanagan

BBC News NI

Simon Harris is set to replace Leo Varadkar, not only as taoiseach but also as the youngest person ever to lead the Republic of Ireland.

At 37, he is a year younger than Mr Varadkar was when he took the same job in 2017.

For Simon Harris, it has been a rapid rise to the top of Irish politics, but then he did start out very early.

The County Wicklow native organised his first political meeting at just 16 years of age.

He was also in such a hurry to start his career in politics that he dropped out of college without finishing his degree.

“I know, in many ways, my career has been a bit odd,” Mr Harris told Hot Press magazine in 2022.

“I was a county councillor at 22. I was a TD (member of the Irish Parliament) at 24.

“I was a junior minister at 27. I was the health minister at 29.

“Life came at me a lot faster than I expected it to.”

Mr Harris was confirmed as Fine Gael leader after he was the only candidate to seek the role – now he is on course to become taoiseach following Mr Varadkar’s shock resignation announcement on Wednesday.

Who is Simon Harris?

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Simon Harris has served as a minister in the Irish cabinet for the past eight years

Mr Harris was born in 1986 and grew up in the coastal town of Greystones, County Wicklow.

The eldest of three children, he is the son of a taxi driver and a special needs assistant.

His younger brother Adam is autistic – a fact which Mr Harris said kickstarted his own involvement in politics when he was 16.

“I was really frustrated – as that moody, opinionated teenager – with the lack of information around autism,” he told Hotpress.

“I saw the stress and strain my parents went through, and called a public meeting in my hometown.”

The teenager invited autistic people and their families to a gathering in his local parish hall.

About 60 people attended the event, which resulted in the establishment of a new autism support and lobby group.

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As a schoolboy, Mr Harris attended St David’s Holy Faith Secondary School in Greystones before beginning a degree in journalism and French at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT).

However, the future minister for further and higher education dropped out of college during the penultimate year of his four-year degree course.

He deferred his studies to work as a parliamentary assistant to Fine Gael Senator Frances Fitzgerald, but very soon he entered elected politics himself.

In 2009 he became a councillor in Wicklow, attracting the highest individual vote of any candidate in the county.

When Fine Gael swept to power in 2011 to lead a new coalition government, Mr Harris won a seat for the party in Wicklow.

Aged 24, he was “the baby of the House” as the youngest member of the 31st Dáil (Irish parliament).

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As the youngest member of the Irish Parliament, Simon Harris met the late Queen Elizabeth in Dublin in 2011

His got his first cabinet role in 2016, taking on the prestigious but difficult role of health minister.

The following summer he married his long-term girlfriend, children’s cardiac nurse Caoimhe Wade.

His brother Adam was best man at the ceremony.

Mr Harris is now father to two children.

Image source, RTE

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Mr Harris married aged 30 and has since had two children

In 2018, he intervened in the case of a nine-year-old schoolboy who was born in Dublin but was facing deportation to China.

Eric Zhi Ying Xue had never been outside Ireland, but was not entitled to Irish citizenship due to a 2004 law change.

“Quite frankly, Eric is Irish,” Mr Harris told BBC News NI at the time.

“This is his home. This is his country. I really hope common sense can prevail.”

He appealed to the Department of Justice and, after a wider campaign led by the boy’s school, Eric was granted leave to stay.

Covid-19 gaffe

Mr Harris had served as health minister for more than three and a half years when he faced his biggest challenge – the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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As health minister, Simon Harris led Ireland’s initial response to the coronovirus emergency

The Republic of Ireland took early precautions, closing all schools and colleges almost a fortnight before the UK enforced its lockdown.

But six weeks into the national emergency, Mr Harris made a surprising gaffe regarding the name of the disease.

Speaking about the prospect of a future vaccine, he said: “Remember this is coronavirus Covid-19, that means there have been 18 other coronaviruses and I don’t think they have successfully found a vaccine for any.”

Widely ridiculed on social media for his lack of knowledge, Mr Harris apologised for what he described as an “awful boo-boo”.

Two months later he was replaced as health minister when a new coalition government was formed.

Mr Harris was moved to a newly-created department, becoming minister for further and higher education, research, innovation and science.

‘My most important job’

He still holds that job and still lives in Wicklow with his young family.

In an opinion piece to mark Father’s Day in 2022 he said parenthood was “the most important job I have, and ever will have”.

“For me, fatherhood changed my whole life. The hours I was happy to spend at my desk can sometimes be spent worrying about missed moments and milestones with the children,” he wrote.

However, commentators have noted Mr Harris has made no secret of his political ambitions.

His name began to circulate as a frontrunner as soon as it was clear the job of taoiseach was up for grabs.

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