Simon Harris poised to become taoiseach as he confirms Fine Gael leadership bid

Simon Harris is set for a clear run to become the next taoiseach after announcing he will stand to be the leader of Fine Gael.

The Further and Higher Education Minister announced his candidature on Thursday night after receiving a series of endorsements from within the Fine Gael parliamentary party and after a number of senior colleagues said they did not intend to stand to replace Leo Varadkar.

Mr Harris told RTE: “I want to join you to let you know this evening I am in, I want to be the next leader of Fine Gael.

“I am ready to step up and I am ready to serve.”

He added: “I have been really overwhelmed and extremely grateful for support from Cabinet colleagues, ministers of state, TDs, MEPs, councillors and grassroots members right across Ireland.

“I want to thank everybody for their support and their trust. It means so much to me and I will work night and day. I will give this my absolute all to repay that trust.”

He added that he wants to bring “energy and an enthusiasm” to the leadership of the party.

“I also want to bring my practical life experience.

“I want to work with colleagues, I want to listen, I want to really reconnect with our party right across the country. I want to get back to core principles.”

In a statement, Mr Harris paid tribute to outgoing taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Leo Varadkar steps down as Taoiseach
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced on Wednesday that he was stepping down (Nick Bradshaw/PA)

“Leo has steered our party and our country through very challenging times including Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the recent cost-of-living crisis.”

He said: “If given the opportunity, I will give this my all.”

Outgoing Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach Mr Varadkar surprised many within the political establishment by announcing his resignation on Wednesday.

Focus has since shifted to his potential successor.

Aside from Mr Harris, all other senior Fine Gael cabinet ministers have ruled themselves out of contention.

Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe, Justice Minister Helen McEntee, Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys and Enterprise Minister and Fine Gael deputy leader Simon Coveney have all said they will not seek a nomination for the leadership.

Ms Humphrey and Ms McEntee are also among a wave of Fine Gael members to have come out publicly in support of Mr Harris.

Minister of State Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, who had been touted as a possible outsider in any race for the leadership, has also ruled herself out and declared support for Mr Harris.

If appointed Fine Gael leader, Mr Harris would be expected to be formally elected as taoiseach in the Dail in April following the Easter recess.

He would become the country’s youngest premier at the age of 37.

Mr Harris has already been viewed as one of the favourites to replace Mr Varadkar, but he may now emerge as the only contender.

Mr Donohoe announced his decision not to stand in a statement issued at lunchtime on Thursday.

“I have long said that my focus is on the two jobs that I am privileged to hold; that of government minister and as president of the Eurogroup (of finance ministers in the eurozone).

“That remains to be the case. It is with a huge honour that I undertake my work on the domestic and international stage.”

Fine Gael leadership contest
Minister of State Patrick O’Donovan and Minister for Justice Helen McEntee at the Backweston Laboratory Campus in Co Kildare talking to the media about the Fine Gael leadership contest as McEntee rules herself out (PA video)

Ms McEntee did not rule out a future bid for the leadership, insisting she is still ambitious, but she said it was not the right time for her.

She dismissed the suggestion that criticism of her handling of riots in Dublin in November and their aftermath influenced her decision not to seek the nomination.

The minister said she made the decision a year or two ago not to stand if the position became vacant in the “immediate future”.

Ms Humphreys said she had given “serious consideration” to a run for the leadership but had decided against it, citing family commitments among her reasons.

“I just want to thank everybody who contacted me in the last 24 hours and have asked me to put my name forward and have offered me their support,” she told reporters outside the Oireachtas parliament in Dublin.

“I have thought about this and given it very serious consideration, and I’ve decided not to put my name forward, but I have decided to give Simon Harris my full support.”

Fine Gael deputy leader Mr Coveney had made clear he would not be running on Wednesday evening.

Mr Varadkar refused to endorse any candidate, saying he wanted to support the next leader “wholeheartedly”.

Speaking in Brussels for the European Council meeting, Mr Varadkar said: “There is a very long-standing tradition in Fine Gael, and a very good one, that outgoing or former party leaders don’t endorse a particular candidate. So I’m not going to do that.

“And the reason why I won’t do that is that it will allow me to support wholeheartedly whoever is elected as the next Fine Gael leader.”