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Analysis-Irish PM-in-waiting Harris faces daunting but not impossible task

Ireland's Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris speaks to the media after being announced as the new leader of Fine Gael, in Athlone

By Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) - After a whirlwind ascent to the top of Irish politics, Simon Harris has little time and few levers to pull to secure a fourth term for his weary centre-right Fine Gael party and prevent a first government led by left-wing Sinn Fein.

Harris was elected unopposed as the new leader of Fine Gael on Sunday, just four days after Leo Varadkar's shock exit. The 37-year-old is set to be voted in as Ireland's youngest ever prime minister when parliament next sits on April 9.

But Harris will face the same deep-rooted problems, most notably a severe shortage of affordable housing, that led to Fine Gael's stagnation under Varadkar, and he now inherits a three-party coalition government that leaves little room for any major new policy initiatives.

It is a daunting, but not insurmountable challenge, says Dublin City University (DCU) politics professor Gary Murphy. He points to recent volatility in Irish politics and polls showing the current coalition could still edge out an alternative led by the poll-leading Sinn Fein at elections due within 12 months.

"It is a huge in-tray and it is a very big challenge for him," said Murphy. "I do think Simon Harris is going to have to do something. The way to certain defeat is just to amble along in the same way. It's hard to do, but not impossible."

While Ireland's economy has been the best performing in the euro zone for much of the past decade, years of tax cuts and increases to public spending have provided little political gain.

Polls show voters have long been more concerned by the inability to corral runaway rents and house prices, improve stretched public services and more recently cope with the added pressure from record numbers of asylum seekers and refugees.

Fine Gael's partners in government insist Harris must finish implementing the policy programme they all agreed in 2020, leaving the former health minister little room for manoeuvre.

A major reshuffle to refresh his ministerial team is also off the cards, given Fine Gael control only seven of 18 seats at cabinet, although DCU's Murphy said it would be a "fatal" error not to move some ministers who have been in place for a decade.

SINN FEIN SLIDE?

Harris is also under pressure from colleagues to better define Fine Gael's offering to voters.

Traditionally centre-right, Fine Gael's attempts to balance promoting tax cuts with an embrace of greater government spending and boosts to workers' rights have turned it into a catch-all party that is not convincing enough voters, analysts say.

Sinn Fein, once the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, backs unification with the British-run province of Northern Ireland, where it is already the largest party. It also vows to ease the housing crisis and improve infrastructure.

While two more polls on Sunday confirmed a recent trend of support for Sinn Fein sliding off highs of 12-18 months ago, they again broadly showed smaller parties and independent candidates as the beneficiaries over the government parties.

That could make the campaign for the next general election - as well the more immediate test at local and European Parliament polls in early June - all the more important, and the energetic Harris may thrive on the hustings where Varadkar struggled.

A small bounce for Fine Gael in one of the polls suggested Harris found some of the extra support on the "soft left" but that there are also floating voters up for grabs on the right.

"There is a clear choice for Harris in relation to which direction he decides to take Fine Gael," said Ireland Thinks pollster Kevin Cunningham, who helped compile the survey.

"He will want to move quickly to outline what his Fine Gael looks like."

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; editing by Mark Heinrich)