‘I’m up for it, are you?’ – Simon Harris hits out at Sinn Féin, populism and tries to ignite crowd in first speech as Fine Gael leader

Taoiseach-elect promises to give ‘blood, sweat and tears’ in the roleMr Harris says he wants to win back voters who have abandoned the partyHe also pays tribute to Leo Varadkar by saying his impact on Ireland was ‘truly significant’

The taoiseach-elect was just short of punching the air during his first speech.

Mr Harris hit out in particular at Sinn Fein and the growth of populism, as he vowed to help win back voters who had left Fine Gael in the dust.

Now was a time when the Irish people needed “hope”, he said.

He vowed to give “blood, sweat and tears” in his role.

He said it was time for Fine Gael to “reset” and to “reconnect” with its grassroots members, to “listen to where you want this party to go in the future”.

In a moment usually saved for the pantomime of American politics, Mr Harris called out to the Fine Gael faithful: “I feel the desperate need for hope right across the country…I’m up for it, are you?”

The room responded “Yes” as Mr Harris attempted to channel Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” slogan from the 2008 US election.

He injected fire into his speech as he stated: “Fine Gael stands for law and order. We stand on the side of the gardaí, for streets that are safe.

“In a week I saw a tricolour spread over the coffin of a garda killer, I say ‘shame’.”

Taoiseach-elect Simon Harris embraces his mother Mary, alongside his father Bart, after being announced as the new leader of Fine Gael in Athlone yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Mr Harris was referring to ex-IRA member, Pearse McCauley, whose coffin was daubed in the tricolour at his funeral last week in Strabane. McCauley was jailed over the killing of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe in Adare, Limerick in 1996.

He also paid tribute to outgoing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who “delivered when hope and leadership were needed in dark days”. He said Mr Varadkar’s impact on Ireland was “truly significant”.

Mr also thanked his family, including his brother Adam, and said how his autism diagnosis had led him to campaign as a teenager and to eventually become leader of Fine Gael. He said it was this experience that keeps him grounded.

“This is an important moment for Fine Gael, to reset… there is a hell of a lot to do in the time to come. Fine Gael stands for supporting businesses the length and breadth of this country,” said Mr Harris.

“Fine Gael stands for making work pay. It stands for supporting educational pathways, no matter where you’re from or what your mother and father did, we want you to be able to reach your full potential.

“We must work everyday to make sure it’s not a happy slogan trotted out at elections.”

‘Fine Gael stands for law and order. We stand on the side of the gardaí, for streets that are safe’

And in a bid to challenge the growing anti-immigration movement across Ireland, he made it clear he was also going to tackle the issue.

“We need a fair and firm system when it comes to migration in this country,” said Mr Harris, although he did not give any further indication of what this plan would look like.

It was evident he had already won over many in the audience, with one middle-aged woman declaring she had to take a seat with the press to ensure she saw the new party leader in his full glory.

“I need to see Simon up close,” she said. “Do you suppose he’s going to pass again?”

Looking beyond Ireland, Mr Harris condemned the illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia, adding: “We stand by Ukraine, always.”

And he vowed to “speak truth to power” to call for an end to the catastrophic conflict and famine in Gaza.

He said there was “moral outrage” at the “humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza” and he called for a ceasefire, the release of hostages and the need to bring about a two-state solution in the Middle East.

Mr Harris also called for an end to be brought to populism.

“This is a great country and we should never let people talk it down,” he said.

Simon Harris is applauded by Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Paschal Donohoe and Justice Minister Helen McEntee at the Fine Gael convention in Athlone. Photo: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne

“I want young people to believe in their future in Ireland. An economy has to work for people, so they feel it on their farm and in the years ahead for their children.

“Fine Gael talks about security, as a nation, for individuals, when they buy their first home… for care, for a health service that delivers.

“To those of you who vote Fine Gael, I sincerely thank you.”

In a message to those who no longer voted for the party, he said: “I want to win back your trust.”

While he used the speech to reach out to the disenchanted, Mr Harris said he “respected” those who will never vote for the party, saying: “I pledge every single day I will work for the common good of this country that we all love.”

Fine Gael deputy leader Simon Coveney, who confirmed he will be running for Fine Gael in the next general election, said: “Simon Harris is ideally placed to take this party forward, to bring back people perhaps this party has lost… to make sure they have a safe home.

“To get this party up into the mid-20s [percentage in polling figures] which is where we should be. Simon, good luck. You have everybody at your back.”

Outside, the anti-immigration campaigners stood in the drizzle. They’d missed a dose of Hollywood inside, where it was a case of standing room only for even the party faithful.

Independent Ireland | News