Simon Harris highlights housing and Gaza in maiden speech as Fine Gael leader

The outgoing higher education minister said that the housing crisis needed to be fixed “for once and for all”, and condemned Israel’s military actions in Gaza

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has pledged to provide more student accommodation and affirmed the government’s readiness to recognise a Palestinian state in his first speech as Fine Gael leader at the party’s Ard Fheis in Galway.

Harris, who is expected to be elected Taoiseach on Tuesday, referenced the lack of affordable student accommodation and emphasised the need to fix the housing crisis “for once and for all”.

“We need more student housing so students are not competing with young families for a place to rent. Under my leadership, we will build more student accommodation,” Harris said.

Harris said that 1,200 student beds will be provided in Dublin as part of an initial “kickstart”, and that the Rent Tax Credit should be increased to over €1,000.

“This will put money back in your pocket and make it easier for young people to set aside some money to save for a mortgage,” he said.

Citing his experience as Minister for Higher Education since 2020, the first Cabinet member to take on such a role, Harris highlighted the need to “break down the barriers” to education.

“Imposing costs on accessing education locks people out of full participation in society,” he said.

“I have worked tirelessly over three years to cut college fees because nothing should stop a person from reaching their full potential.”

Harris also said that his government will build more schools and apprenticeship facilities, as well as expanding upon the provision of special education facilities.

Harris’ speech also addressed the ongoing bombardment of Gaza by Israeli forces, which he described as a “humanitarian catastrophe [worsening] before our eyes”.

“We condemn the massacre carried out by Hamas in October and again call for the release of all hostages. But we cannot stay silent on the actions of Israel either.”

Saying that reason had been “replaced by revenge and by the bombing, maiming and death of children”, Harris said that the outbreak of famine was a “spectre no Irish person can bear”.

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

He reiterated the desire to see a two-state solution, but vowed that Ireland “stands ready to recognise the state of Palestine”, to applause from delegates.

Support for business and farmers, climate action and immigration were also raised by Harris during his address to party members.

Reacting to Harris’ speech, Sinn Féin’s Spokesperson on Housing Eoin Ó Broin said the Taoiseach-elect had “effectively trashed his own government’s housing plan targets” whilst continuing to pursue the “same failing policies”.

“His Ard Fheis speech offered nothing new in terms of tackling rising homelessness, rising rents or rising house prices,” Ó Broin said.

“Increasing the renters tax credit without a ban on rent increases will simply mean that landlords will pocket the increase with rent hikes. The renter will be no better off.”

Ó Broin said that more radical policies were needed to tackle the housing crisis, including the delivery of higher numbers of social and affordable housing, a three-year rent increase ban, and the utilisation of emergency planning and procurement powers to deliver housing for those in emergency accommodation.

“Soundbites from a wannabe Taoiseach will not fix the housing crisis created by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Only a general election, a change of government and a change of housing plan can do that.”

The Fine Gael Ard Fheis took place in the University of Galway. A number of students protested the conference in an on-campus demonstration organised by the University of Galway Students’ Union (UGSU).

Harris is expected to be elected Taoiseach by a majority of TDs in the Dáil on Tuesday, after he secured the public backing of five independent deputies.

Evan Skidmore O’Reilly

Evan Skidmore O’Reilly is News Co-Editor for the 70th volume of Trinity News. He is a former Deputy News Editor, and is a current final year Business and Politics student.