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Harris Will Take on Sinn Fein, Migration as Next Irish Premier

(Bloomberg) -- Ireland’s Higher Education Minister Simon Harris was named leader of his Fine Gael party on Sunday, putting him on course to become the next prime minister in a matter of weeks.

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In his first speech as premier-elect on Sunday, Harris presaged a tack to the right for his centrist party in a bid to better deal with Ireland’s pressing challenges on housing and migration, with an eye to new elections that are expected within a year.

Harris indicated that one of his central campaign themes will be Ireland’s stable economy and continued domestic growth despite global headwinds. In his speech, he warned against the dangers of populism and polarization, a narrative that will be part of efforts to fend off the rising force of left-wing party Sinn Fein, which has never governed in the Republic before but leads in polls.

“We have to couple economic strength with moral courage to acknowledge our shortcomings and address them with renewed focus and action,” he told a packed conference hall in Athlone, Ireland. “In the hours, days and weeks ahead I will be going back to the decent, hardworking grassroots of this party,” including on security and a “fair and firm” migration system, he said.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar set off a leadership race when he unexpectedly announced his intention to step down last week after seven years in office. Harris stood uncontested to lead his party after potential rivals including Paschal Donohoe stood aside.

It’s expected that Harris will be formally voted in as the Taoiseach — the prime minister in Ireland — on April 9 when parliament returns after its Easter break. Harris met with Varadkar Monday morning to discuss “upcoming national and international issues,” according to a spokesperson for Varadkar. Ratification in parliament is all but certain given the backing of members in Varadkar and Harris’s party, Fine Gael, as well as the other main coalition group, Fianna Fail.

The next general election must be held by March 2025, leaving the new prime minister less than 12 months to turn around Fine Gael’s dwindling support and tackle the country’s continuing housing and migration crises. Harris told reporters that he plans to take his government to full term.

Ireland has maintained a stable economy and almost full employment, giving Harris a strong continuity argument going into the campaign. But the Irish face a desperate lack of affordable housing, exacerbated by the largest influx of migration the country has ever seen.

Housing will be the top priority for the incoming Taoiseach, Dermot O’Leary, chief economist at stockbroker Goodbody, said in an interview. “Leo Varadkar played a big part in supporting the sector through increased state involvement over the past 12 months. Politically, socially and economically, it is the number one issue for the country.”

Polling Headwinds

A Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks poll this month put Sinn Fein at 27%, with Fine Gael at 20% and Fianna Fail at 18%. While that shows a slight drop, it still puts Sinn Fein on track to form the next government, though it would likely need a coalition partner to do so.

A Sinn Fein election victory would have potentially seismic implications, with the party’s core tenet being the reunification of Ireland.

Sinn Fein was part of the struggle for independence from the British in what is now the Republic, and in Northern Ireland, it had links with the Irish Republican Army during the sectarian violence known as The Troubles.

“Sinn Fein can’t bear to look back over what Fine Gael has achieved since pulling our economy back from the brink. Always seeking to denigrate our service in government by denying reality,” Harris said. “They can’t handle the truth.”

Harris, at 37, will become Ireland’s youngest ever prime minister, beating Varadkar’s record of 38. Active on social media, he has garnered the title of Tik Tok Taoiseach. Despite his youth, he is considered politically experienced and has risen quickly through the ranks of his party, including a stint as health minister.

During his acceptance speech, he made a very pro-European argument, he condemned “the horrific, illegal invasion of Ukraine” by Russian President Vladimir Putin and he called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

Harris and Fine Gael will now need to prove to the electorate that they are fit to govern, following the shock resignation of its leader, surprise defeats this month in referendums to change outdated language on women and family, and rising support for opposition party Sinn Fein.

“Against harsh headwinds, we have protected our economy,” Harris said. “This gives us the strength to tackle the deficits in our society.”

(Updates with Harris comments, and additional context throughout.)

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