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'TikTok Taoiseach': Simon Harris set to be Ireland's youngest PM

By AFP

March 22, 2024 06:05 PM


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Simon Harris, set to become Ireland's youngest ever taoiseach (prime minister), will hope his social media skills and fresh face can save his party's flagging fortunes as elections loom.

Already dubbed by media the "TikTok Taoiseach" (pronounced "Tee-shock") the 37-year-old beats the previous record holder, predecessor Leo Varadkar, who was 38 when he took the top job in 2017.

After Varadkar's shock resignation Wednesday, Harris leapt from the blocks in the race for leader of the centre-right Fine Gael party and by default prime minister.

By Thursday lunchtime he had secured endorsements by a majority of party colleagues, prompting rivals to rule themselves out -- and effectively ending the leadership contest before it had even begun.

With no other candidates expected to emerge before nominations close Monday, pundits described Harris's apparent uncontested procession to the leadership as a 'coronation'.

"I'm in, I'm ready to step up, and I'm ready to serve," he told the public broadcaster RTE's evening news programme after officially announcing his candidacy.

  Meteoric rise 

 Harris's inevitable election as taoiseach when the Dail (Irish parliament) returns from recess on April 9 crowns a meteoric ascent.

Born in 1986, he grew up in the small coastal town of Greystones near Dublin, the son of a taxi driver.

He dropped out of a journalism and French college course in Dublin after one year to focus on an already promising politics career.

Harris entered politics by campaigning for autism services for his autistic younger brother, later founding a charity.

He joined the youth branch of Fine Gael at the age of 16 and quickly rose through the party ranks.

A county councillor aged 22, he was elected to parliament as a 24-year-old in 2011 -- at the time the youngest MP and titled "Baby of the Dail".

He was appointed health minister in 2016 aged just 29.

"In many ways, my career has been a bit odd,..., life came at me a lot faster than I expected it to," he told Hot Press magazine in a 2022 interview.

Harris served as health minister for over four years including during the Covid pandemic during which his communication skills were praised despite heavy criticism over nursing homes deaths and occasional gaffes.

He can be an "awful old idiot at times" he said after remarking that Covid-19 refers to 18 previous coronaviruses rather than the year it first occurred.

He was also embroiled in controversies around new hospital projects while a threatened opposition no confidence vote over overcrowding on wards led Varadkar to call an election in 2020 where Fine Gael slumped to third place.

  Social media savvy

 A father-of-two and married to a cardiac nurse, Harris's prominence on social media especially TikTok has made him one of the most visible politicians in Ireland.

He has been higher education minister since 2020 and even critics concede he is a talented communicator.

With 1.4 million "likes" on TikTok, and hundreds of thousands of followers on both X and Instagram, he posts content almost daily to his audience.

Some of his videos and remarks have been seen as trying too hard to appeal to the younger generation.

During one stormy parliamentary committee meeting, Harris told the group: "Chillax –- I think everyone needs to take a step back here".

"All the young people know what 'chillax' is," he said in parliament the next day.

With his youth and slick communication skills his opponents jibe that he is "Leo 2.0", a continuation of a "metropolitan" style of politics that is out of touch with the wider electorate.

But for supporters, his enthusiasm could re-energise Fine Gael which still trails third in polls 10 weeks before local and European Parliament elections, and within a year from a general election.

"He has huge energy and huge ambition,” one party colleague told the Irish Times paper.

"He's cute, crafty, and shrewd," said another.


AFP


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