Daniel McConnell: Simon Harris makes it clear to all 'I wanna be the leader'

Higher education minister's ambition is laudable but he must remember to be careful what he wishes for
Daniel McConnell: Simon Harris makes it clear to all 'I wanna be the leader'

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris: Some cynics have said that while the two are appearing to work well now, when Varadkar has nothing left to hold over Harris, his push for the top could become much more aggressive.

IN the office of the late Aengus Fanning, my former editor at the Sunday Independent, hung the Roger McGough poem ‘The Leader’.

“I wanna be the leader, I wanna be the leader, Can I be the leader? Can I? I can? Promise? Promise? Yippee I’m the leader, I’m the leader, OK what shall we do?” the poem goes.

It was a constant, visceral reminder of the extraordinary lengths people will go to become leaders in politics.

Last week, floating under the radar, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris went to Belfast.

There he delivered a speech at Queen’s University that was roundly ignored by the national media, north and south.

Entitled ‘Building a shared island and shared future through education’, the speech was significant on two fronts.

Firstly, it was full of the lofty, big vision stuff one would tends to hear from an aspirant leader.

Simon Harris TD speaking last month at the official launch of the new Atlantic Technological University in Sligo. Picture: James Connolly
Simon Harris TD speaking last month at the official launch of the new Atlantic Technological University in Sligo. Picture: James Connolly

It was not a speech restricted to his core area of higher education but articulated a much wider set of values of co-operation and a shared future for the island.

Harris, who has admitted he has never “hidden his ambitions under a bushel”, is one of two emerging candidates seeking to replace Leo Varadkar if and when the time comes.

The other, Helen McEntee, has seen media coverage of her in recent weeks adopt a more negative and more questioning tone than what she has previously received.

Several correspondents have sought to portray her as “lightweight” or “insubstantial”.

Such descriptions are harsh but the reality is that McEntee’s greatest weakness is that, two years in, she has not been severely tested by her portfolio as justice minister.

Either by design or by fortune of circumstance, she has not had to react or respond to a Maurice McCabe or CervicalCheck type scandal.

Interesting timing

The timing of Harris’ vision speech was interesting in the context of such negative coverage of his chief rival.

In the speech, Harris spoke of being just 11 years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 and how his generation of political leaders need to build on the courage and vision shown.

He concluded his speech by saying: “Hope isn’t a vague concept. It’s a belief system. It’s a way of living. It’s a way of leading. As Seamus Heaney said, it is ‘something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for’.”

He said the relationships between higher education institutions through Universities Ireland and bi-lateral collaborations are strong but we must keep going.

Also quoting Hillary Clinton, Harris said divisiveness, disinformation, and disintegration pose a real and present danger.

These are the dangers our generation face.

The repeated references to his generation were not too subtle reminders about his desire to lead.

Such a speech read in its entirety must be seen as Harris seeking to set out and round out his perceived vision of north-south relations should he ever find himself in the Taoiseach’s office.

The developing of his vision and articulation of same is clearly part of his plan to “future proof” himself for if and when the time comes that a vacancy arises.

The speech is also in the context of Harris undertaking an intensive tour of all constituencies around the country, allowing him to press the flesh with voters and more importantly Fine Gael members, largely away from media scrutiny.

Of course such movements are being closely watched by Varadkar and his allies as any leader fears the moment when their support base abandons them for the next big thing.

It has been pointed out that what Harris has been doing, overt as it is, has been far less conspicuous than what Varadkar did in advance of him succeeding Enda Kenny in 2017.

Zappone fallout

Harris and Varadkar’s relationship was tested last summer during the Katherine Zappone affair and the widespread belief is that Varadkar would have demoted Harris in 2020 if he could have got away with it politically.

The fallout over Katherine Zappone was damaging. Picture: Eamonn Farrell / RollingNews.ie
The fallout over Katherine Zappone was damaging. Picture: Eamonn Farrell / RollingNews.ie

The second and more immediate reason for giving his speech is that Harris, McEntee, and other Fine Gael ministers know that once Varadkar returns to the Taoiseach’s office in December a reshuffle will happen.

Ministers are seeking to ensure that, should the axe fall, it does not fall on them.

Despite his own difficulties, this gives Varadkar a powerful weapon over his ministers, current and wannabe, for the next few months.

Reshuffles are notoriously tricky exercises to navigate and any wrong move could give the leader an easier decision than it otherwise might have been.

So while Harris was setting out his vision, he has been extremely careful not to in anyway make it look as if he has been disloyal to his leader.

There is no evidence, bar his unashamed nature of positioning himself, that Harris is actively undermining his leader.

Those within Fine Gael are keen to ensure the transition back to the Taoiseach’s office is not derailed by any internal shenanigans, and Harris and Varadkar are reportedly “working well”.

Harris will be somewhat nervous that his previous perceived disloyalty to his leader could see him axed from Cabinet but Varadkar also knows that exiling Harris to the backbenches or even the junior ministerial benches would be high risk.

Either way, with the party’s poll ratings in a slump, it serves both Harris and Varadkar to “pull together” and try to recover as much ground as possible.

Pragmatism

A healthy dose of pragmatism at play.

Varadkar is already facing a rear guard action from his previous loyalists such as John Paul Phelan, Brendan Griffin, Paul Kehoe, and Michael Ring, who have become the main critics of the leadership in recent months.

The disaffected gang within Fine Gael is increasing and Varadkar cannot afford to add a highly effective communicator in Harris to that group.

With McEntee due to go out on her second historic maternity leave in December, eyes will be on Harris and how steadfast his loyalty remains once the transition has happened.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee has not been tested during her portfolio. Picture: Conor Ó Mearáin
Justice Minister Helen McEntee has not been tested during her portfolio. Picture: Conor Ó Mearáin

Some cynics have said that while the two are appearing to work well now, when Varadkar has nothing left to hold over Harris his push for the top could become much more aggressive.

However, that is down the line.

Whatever the motivation for Harris giving the speech he gave in Belfast, it was clear it was not just about education and had more to do with his own personal ambitions.

While he has been careful to not stray over the line of disloyalty, it will be interesting to see if he can resist pushing further in the months ahead, particularly if Varadkar finds himself in hot water.

However, while Harris’ vision of the future for Ireland espoused the value of hope, I am too reminded of that line from The Shawshank Redemption delivered by Morgan Freeman’s character, Red: “Let me tell you something my friend, hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”

Harris’ ambition to be leader is not ignoble but he must be careful that his hopes do not lead him into dangerous territory where he makes a mistake.

What is certain, his speech in Belfast has firmly announced his intention to be counted when the time comes.

 

 

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