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The new Prime Minister of Ireland, Simon Harris gestures as he is applauded by fellow lawmakers outside Leinster House, in Dublin, Ireland, on April 9.Peter Morrison/The Associated Press

Simon Harris became Ireland’s youngest-ever prime minister on Tuesday, pledging to bring new ideas and energy to the less than 12 months he has to boost the coalition government’s bid to halt a first electoral victory by left-wing Sinn Fein.

The 37-year-old former health and higher education minister, best known for helping steer the initial response to COVID-19, was elected unopposed as leader of Fine Gael last month, all but assuring he would succeed Leo Varadkar as the 16th person to lead the country after his predecessor’s shock exit.

“As Taoiseach [Prime Minister], I want to bring new ideas, a new energy and a new empathy to public life,” Mr. Harris told lawmakers after a parliamentary vote, wiping a tear from his eye before he spoke.

“Now is an opportune time to build a new social contract – one which renews our promise as a republic. To create equality of opportunity. To support those who need the state the most. To protect our hard-earned economic success. To use its benefits to deliver tangible outcomes to society.”

Mr. Harris will face the same deep-rooted problems, most notably a severe shortage of affordable housing and unease at record numbers of asylum seekers, that led to Fine Gael’s stagnation under Mr. Varadkar, and inherits a coalition agreement that leaves little room for major new policy initiatives.

He made two promotions to cabinet – the bare minimum after Mr. Varadkar and former deputy prime minister Simon Coveney stepped down. Fine Gael has seven of the 18 ministerial posts, which limited his options.

New Enterprise Minister Peter Burke, whose role includes attracting more multinational companies to Ireland, was tasked by Mr. Harris with developing “a number of practical measures” to ease the burden on small Indigenous businesses.

“There are some small wins he can deliver on but ultimately Simon Harris is not going to be able to do anything substantial at this stage on the major challenge that this government has been grappling with for four years,” said Theresa Reidy, senior lecturer in politics at University College Cork.

Mr. Harris – who quit university at 20 to work as a political aide, was elected to Parliament at 24 and appointed to cabinet before he turned 30 – is a year younger than Mr. Varadkar was when he was first appointed prime minister in 2017.

In her speech proposing the new Prime Minister, Fine Gael deputy leader Heather Humphreys joked that she mistook the baby-faced Mr. Harris for a student on a school tour when they both entered Parliament for the first time 13 years ago.

Mr. Harris used a speech at Saturday’s Fine Gael annual conference to spell out his focus on law and order, helping small business and reconnecting with rural voters.

He also pledged to fix the housing crisis “once and for all” – something his predecessors have also promised – proposing an extension to support for developers and first-time buyers, while acknowledging the required boost to supply would take years.

“Deputy Harris offers and represents more of the same. He sat at cabinet for eight years presiding over the very policies that have seen a collapse in home ownership and skyrocketing rents,” said Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald.

An opinion poll on Sunday showed housing remained voters’ top concern ahead of an election that must be held by next March.

The same poll confirmed a recent trend of support for Sinn Fein dropping off highs of 12 to 18 months ago, opening a possible path to re-election for Mr. Harris, though independent candidates, rather than the ruling parties, have been the main beneficiaries.

Sinn Fein stood on 26 per cent, with Fine Gael on 21 per cent and Fianna Fail on 16 per cent, while 17 per cent backed independent candidates.

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