Ireland’s incoming taoiseach Simon Harris has pledged to lead his party with a “new energy” as he vowed to hit the ground running as leader.

Ahead of his expected election as Irish premier in the Dail parliament next week, recently appointed Fine Gael leader Mr Harris addressed delegates at his party’s annual conference in Galway on Saturday evening.

His uncontested elevation to leader of Fine Gael came after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s shock resignation last month.

Mr Harris is to formally replace Mr Varadkar as the head of Ireland’s Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Green Party coalition government in the Dail on Tuesday.

In a wide-ranging speech at the close of the ard fheis at the University of Galway, Mr Harris identified housing; law and order; and support for small business as key priorities.

He also addressed recent tensions in Ireland over increased immigration rates, as he pledged to oversee a “fair” but “firm” system to manage migration into the country.

Launching a broadside against the main opposition party, Sinn Fein, he said the electorate in forthcoming local and European elections faced a stark choice between “opportunity and outright opportunism”.

Simon Harris with Leo Varadkar
Simon Harris with Leo Varadkar (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mr Harris, who paid warm tribute to his predecessor Mr Varadkar, said he was “deeply honoured” to take on the “greatest challenge” of his life.

He described himself as a “proud Wicklow man” as he referred to his upbringing as the oldest of three children and the values instilled by his mother, a special needs assistant, and his taxi driver father.

The 37-year-old also spoke with pride about his wife Caoimhe, a nurse, and young children Saoirse and Cillian.

“Everything I do will be the grounded in the values my parents raised me with – hard work, compassion, and a desire to help those who need it the most,” he said.

“And everything I do will be with the ambition to create a better Ireland not just for Saoirse and Cillian – for all of our children.”

He told delegates his political story began when his younger brother Adam was diagnosed with autism and he began campaigning for better information and services.

He characterised Fine Gael’s fundamental values as hope, enterprise, equality of opportunity, integrity and security.

“That is the Fine Gael I intend to lead, with a new energy,” he said.

On his expected election as taoiseach, he added: “If given this great honour, I will take office when time is short but there is much to do.

“Tonight, I promise you, we’re going to hit the ground running.

“I will stand by our values as a party and our vision as a nation. A tolerant, inclusive and outward-looking society, which is fair, caring and secure.

“I am going to match that vision with action.”

Mr Harris vowed to tackle Ireland’s housing crisis, pledging to build 250,000 new homes in five years.

“I am of a generation where home ownership can feel out of the reach of many,” he said.

“To young people, I want you to know your future is here in Ireland. And I want your parents to know we will move mountains to get the children out of the box room and into a home of their own.

“We have to fix housing once and for all.”

Mr Harris pledged a package to support small business owners as he acknowledged they were “hurting” under the pressure of increasing costs.

He said Fine Gael was also the party of “farmers, fishermen and women and rural Ireland”.

Commenting on the challenges presented by climate change, Mr Harris stressed the need for a collaborative approach.

“I want to say to farmers and to rural Ireland, Fine Gael will never talk down to you on climate action,” he said. “We will sit down and work with you and for you.”

Simon Harris speaking at the University of Galway
Simon Harris speaking at the University of Galway (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mr Harris also vowed to help families struggling in the cost-of-living crisis.

He restated his ambition to raise the threshold for the higher rate of income tax to 50,000 euro (£43,000) and promised to further reduce the universal social charge burden on low and middle-income earners.

Mr Harris also pledged to break down barriers to education and improve access to childcare facilities.

The Wicklow TD also promised to take action to help people with disabilities.

On the wider health service, he said the focus would be on improving access and opening more beds and theatres and ensuring the training and recruitment of more GPs, consultants, nurses and therapists.

He said Fine Gael would always stand for law and order under his leadership.

“We stand for more gardai, with more powers and more resources to make our streets safe,” he said.

“We stand for tougher sentences for those who commit horrific crimes.”

He said he would fast-track legislation to give judges powers to make sure “heinous criminals” serve long sentences before they are considered for release.

On the fall-out from November’s far-right influenced riots in Dublin, Mr Harris said he would immediately convene a Dublin city centre taskforce bringing together the council, retailers, business, community groups and gardai to chart a path towards a “safer and vibrant” city.

“It is time to have pride again in our capital city,” he added.

Mr Harris said Ireland needed a “fair and firm system” to better manage migration.

Outlining his support for the new EU migration pact, Mr Harris added: “We need to move away from the emergency use of hotels for housing asylum seekers. I believe we now have that plan.

“But the implementation will be key and engagement with communities is essential and leadership across government. We need to listen to people.

“The Irish people want to play their part. Irish people want to help. They already are.”

Speaking about the tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Ireland, Mr Harris acknowledged the influx had posed challenges.

“Taking in families fleeing the war has brought significant pressures. But it is the right thing to do,” he said.

“Ireland, as a proud and committed member of the European Union, will always stand with the people of Ukraine.”

Addressing the conflict in the Middle East, Mr Harris issued a blunt message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying Ireland was “repulsed” by his actions.

The comments drew a standing ovation from the Fine Gael membership.

“In Gaza we see a humanitarian catastrophe worsen before our eyes,” he said.

“We unreservedly condemn the massacre carried out by Hamas in October and again call for the unconditional release of all hostages.

“But we cannot and will not stay silent on the actions of Israel either.

“Reason has been replaced by revenge and by the bombing, maiming and death of children.

“Famine. A spectre no Irish person can bear. Anyone who can countenance deliberate starvation has lost their humanity.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Irish people could not be clearer. We are repulsed by your actions. Cease fire now and let the aid flow safely.

“We need a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living side-by-side, in peace and security.

“I reiterate, Ireland stands ready to recognise the state of Palestine.”

On Northern Ireland, Mr Harris spoke of the need to maintain positive co-operation.

“I am determined to work together on a north-south, east-west basis to improve the lives of everyone across these islands,” he said.

Mr Harris said the choice facing the electorate at local and European elections in June was the “starkest it has faced in generations”.

“A choice between opportunity and outright opportunism,” he said.

“Sinn Fein promises change. What they mean is they will change their mind at every chance.

“A party which promises utopia, but specialises in U-turns.”

He accused Sinn Fein of exploiting every challenge for its own gain.

In conclusion, the Fine Gael leader said he would work day and night to make people’s lives better.

“We will have your back. We will repay your trust,” he said.

“Together, I promise we will deliver. With a new energy. Now let’s get to work.”