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Speech of Minister for Further and Higher Education, Simon Harris, TD, following his election as Leader of Fine Gael

Sheraton Athlone Hotel, Co Westmeath, Sunday, 24th March 2024

24th March 2024 - Simon Harris TD


Dia dhiabh, A chairde, My dear friends,

It is the honour of my life to lead this great party, our great party, Fine Gael.

On another day in March – it’s 13 years ago now – I nervously got to my feet in Dáil Éireann and delivered my maiden speech.

And on that day, I was honoured to nominate Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

Back then, I could never have imagined standing here today as the new leader of Fine Gael.


Thank you for your trust.

I promise that I will repay that trust with hard work.

With blood, sweat and tears – day in and day out.

With responsibility, with humility and with civility.

13 years ago, I quoted from the letter George Bernard Shaw sent to Michael Collins’ sister Hannie upon the death of her beloved brother.

“It is time to hang out our brightest colours and move forward as a nation.”

I chose those words because those were dark days; days when hope was needed more than ever. Hope is after all one of Fine Gael’s fundamental values and one of the basics we must never lose sight of as we set about our work.

But I must begin by paying tribute to Leo Varadkar for his leadership of our party and our country.

Leo is no stranger to dark days when hope and leadership were needed, and he delivered. Whether it was the existential threats of Brexit and Covid or his contribution to key moments of social change in this country, I believe his legacy is truly significant.

Since 2011 when Enda brought hope to a battered country, we have all soldiered together to rebuild Ireland’s economy and reputation so that enterprise and opportunity could flourish once again.

And, thank God, it is flourishing.

Sinn Féin 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.

They can’t handle the truth.

We will not stand for that.

I remember the Ireland where 15% of people were unemployed and I remember the incredulity when Richard Bruton said he would create100,000 new jobs.

Richard delivered.

I remember when tourism was on the floor and people scoffed when Enda Kenny launched the Gathering to help rejuvenate the economy.

Enda and Leo delivered.

I remember people coming into my clinics, terrified about their mortgage arrears, when the spectre of mass repossessions was very real but Fine Gael and Michael Noonan worked might and main to ensure that didn’t happen.

We delivered.

Just look at all that has been achieved since then together:

  • From unemployment to full employment.
  • From a budget deficit to a budget surplus.
  • A more equal Ireland.
  • Progress on affordable childcare and universal health care.

You know, Michael Noonan once told me challenges never go away; they just change.

There will always be challenges but they can always be met if we cleave to those fundamental values which have served this nation well.

These are the Fine Gael values.

Hope. Enterprise. Equality of Opportunity. Integrity. Security.

I have been in this party since I was 15 years old and those values meant and mean everything to me.

I believe in public service and the power of politics to make a difference and to make people’s lives better.

In fact, that is how I came to be involved in politics in the first place.

I grew up with parents who worked hard and raised their children to believe in the rewards of working hard.

Ordinary people, like families all over the country, who inspire their children every day.

My mother used to tell us that success is about liking what you do.

My parents gave up so much and worked so hard for us and today I thank them for that.

I want to take this moment to also thank my incredibly supportive – and extraordinarily patient – wife, Caoimhe, and our wonderful children, Saoirse and Cillian. I appreciate I’m a very lucky man in every way.

When I was eight, my little brother, Adam, was born and my parents quickly realised he was a little bit different. As time went on and we realised Adam was autistic, although much less was known about autism at the time, I grew increasingly frustrated at the dearth of information and the absence of support for families like ours.

This led me to campaign, to advocate and ultimately to politics… and Fine Gael.

That experience is what keeps me grounded, it underpins my belief in the need for politics, for good Government, and for Government to always be about delivering for the people.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues, today as we gather in Athlone, this is a moment for Fine Gael to reset.

It is a moment for Fine Gael to reconnect.

It is a moment for Fine Gael to renew our commitment to the people.

There is a helluva lot to get done in the time ahead.

But let me say this:

Under my leadership, Fine Gael stands for supporting businesses, especially small businesses.

Fine Gael stands for making work pay.

Fine Gael stands for supporting education and educational pathways for all – to ensure equality of opportunity is not a slogan but is a value that is woven through everything we do.

Fine Gael stands for balanced regional development and to those in rural Ireland, let me say this, we have your back.

Fine Gael stands for law and order, on the side of An Garda Siochána, where our streets are safe and crime is never allowed go unchecked.

Fine Gael stands for supporting the family farm and helping farmers to transition to meet the challenges of food security and climate change.

And Fine Gael believes we need now to move from an emergency response to the migration crisis to a more planned, sustainable model, to a fair and firm system when it comes to migration.

Fine Gael stands as a proudly pro-European party and a party that will work with all parties across this island to embed prosperity and peace, and to harness the potential of the all-island economy.

Fine Gael will always support democracy and freedom, and we condemn the horrific, illegal invasion of Ukraine by Putin.

And Fine Gael stands as a party unafraid to speak truth to power about the catastrophe we are witnessing in Gaza and to voice in no uncertain terms the moral outrage of the Irish people.

I repeat my calls today for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, the immediate release of all hostages, an end to violence in the Middle East and a political process to bring about a two state solution.

In these areas and around the concept of security and wellbeing for people and families – which I will discuss in a moment – I want to drive progress and delivery in the time ahead.

And I want this party to fight against populism and deliberate polarisation.

We must and we will do this with civility, with honesty, with a determination to debate without rancour and personal demonisation. But let no one mistake my civility for lack of resolve.

I know I won’t get everything right.

But I am going to bring energy and renewal to this party.

In the hours, days and weeks ahead I will be going back to the decent, hardworking grassroots of this party and listening carefully to what you want to see happen next.

I will act, and act decisively, but I will always listen.

I will never lose touch with people in this party or people across the country.

This is a great country and we should never allow people to talk it down. We have many problems to solve and I know the people just want us to crack on with this work.

Fine Gael, working with our partners in Fianna Fáil and the Green party, has now built a solid base upon which we can once again meet challenging times with hope and determination.

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

We have to couple economic strength with moral courage to acknowledge our shortcomings and address them with renewed focus and action.

I want young people to believe in their future in Ireland. We owe it to them. We need to make this happen.

It is impossible to emphasise enough how much a strong economy matters – we get that – and how vital macroeconomic stability is for our future economic and social wellbeing.

But we also know that an economy has to work for people so that they feel it in their own household economies, on their farms and in their businesses, around the kitchen table, and in the lives they can see ahead for their children.

Fine Gael talks about security as one of our values.

It doesn’t just mean security as a nation.

It means security for individuals and for families.

The security a person or a family feels when they buy their own home.

The security of care for people when they need it most.

The security of a health service with improved outcomes.

Security on our streets.

Friends, when we gather at our Ard Fheis shortly, I look forward to outlining in more detail the direction forward we will take on these issues.

To those who vote Fine Gael, I thank you and commit to redoubling our efforts. To those who don’t vote Fine Gael but once did, I want to win back your trust and your vote.

To those who never will vote Fine Gael, I will always respect you and will work for the common good of this country.

I love this country and I will work every moment of every day to keep it safe and to deliver for people.

The late, great poet, Séamus Heaney, penned lines which have become a guiding principle for me: “Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.”

I know the value of hard work.

And I feel the desperate need for hope.

I promise to do my damnedest for the good of this party and the good of this country.

I’m up for it.

I’m ready.

And I thank you again for your trust.

Go raibh maith agaibh.

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