I'm there in Gary, and you're listening to the laughs of your life, the podcast where I talk to influential people about laughter from their first memories of laughter to feeling left out to the moment where if they didn't laugh, they cry.
So in his socks starts jumping up and down arms again. You have to know my brother had to be there, but all of a sudden Adam is effectively dancing in the grease.
Then then we start said, no, Adam, what does Adam then do both around the house in the snow.
So, no, there's no immaculately clean taste that we were so chuffed that we don't everything is no grease rich or whatever. So we have a great idea. My sister and I, we do. We get them up. So, no, you don't apply water to this. I didn't know that at the time. I don't know.
Former Minister for Health and current Minister for Further and Higher Education, Simon Harris is my guest this week.
He talks to me about growing up in Wicklow in a tight knit family, his love for Batard burgers and his somewhat eventful time in his role as health minister. I hope you enjoy. Minister Simon Harris, you are extremely welcome to the last of your life. Thank you very much.
Thank you for having me for the purpose of this interview and the flow. Can I just call Simon? Please do.
OK. I was kind of hoping you would like Noah. OK, we will get well, first of all, thank you for having us here in this new office of yours.
Thank you for coming.
This is morning, Alison Lane. We're in an office. It was the minister for Transport Office, but I've been given a new government department and we had no no office. So Eamon Ryan has very kindly let us stay here. So we're where we're squatting here for the moment. You and you're liking it. I'm liking a lot of the big change from the last row, but really a really exciting department and you're trying to get stuck in. But after four and a half years in health, it's a bit of a kind of culture shock move in anywhere else.
And not just any four and a half years. No, pretty busy. The most unprecedented four and a half months and all of the four hot.
Well, no, maybe all of us.
Maybe all of it. Yeah, yeah. The whole the whole lot. Well, thank you for the opportunity.
I had responsibility for them. Yes. For flood management. Right. We had the worst rain and was about a hundred years during my time. Then when I became Minister for Health, we had the biggest global pandemic. So it just seems to kind of follow me. OK, so what's going to happen? What do you predict? Just which would be a lucky break. OK, well, look, we'll start with our laughter. Yes.
Simon, your first memory of laughter.
So I think my first memory of laughter. These are weird questions you never get asked in politics. But my my my first memory of laughter is when my nana was my my sister and myself. And I think it was a four, maybe five. And we decided to decorate the house in the toilet roll from the bathroom. So we ran all around the house, covered all of us with a toilet. My nana was a very patient, very patient woman minded.
It's a lot. But yeah, that's what that's what we put her through that day as well. My sister, who was younger than me by three years and I just thought this was absolutely hilarious, the little things, isn't it?
So you're the eldest of three three. So there's myself, my sister Gemma, who was born on my third birthday. We take family planning very seriously.
And my brother Adam, who is eight years younger than me, he's twenty four, nearly twenty five, I think.
And what was it like being the ages of three? What was Big Brother Simon like? I don't know. And we're very close.
So so the three of us were were and are very close and we'd kind of a grayish childhood. You know, we played a lot together. My mother was big into him like fancy dress competitions, and the residents association would always have the best costumes. She dresses operator well and all that of stuff. So we went kind of went everywhere together. We were very close and I always felt I was the oldest. You kind of had to break down the barriers.
Yeah. To my younger brother. Kind of got to teenagers, kind of like, you know, we'd we'd done everything for him was kind of like I let him off. So erm. Yeah. Being the older than the oldest, I suppose you have to break down the barriers for your siblings.
Soldier I these I'm the youngest so they were well broken for me.
This Boyages. Yeah.
My mom blamed me, my mom blames my antics on the fact that I was the youngest but I can't imagine you breaking too many rules.
Would I be right or wrong.
No, I probably right. OK, it's pretty serious. And I didn't really break many rules growing up. Actually, I was kind of. Yeah, no, I was bored enough I suppose.
What what do you reckon your fellow primary school or secondary school students would have said about you.
Mm. I don't know.
Am I a lot of good friends and a lot of friends and I'm still very I'm still friends with them today. So I think that's, you know, it's a good sign that says my friends from primary school and you know, four or five are still amongst my closest friends today. So I think I made good friends and hope I was a good friend from a kind of young age. And I've kept that kind of close group of friends ever since then.
I was never very good at sport, though.
I remember my my dad used to manage the the local soccer club, Greystones United, the local soccer team there, and I begged my dad to put me in goals once, please, for me, goals in the mini league. And these are seven goals in and a couple of minutes and completely Motiva. My father embarrassed my friends. I kind of knew my limitations are my life.
Yeah. And do you think with what you do now, um, it's so important to have your friends that you had from the get go, and do you think that grounds you do you think is is a support network that is so important? Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's really important in life that you have friends who are friends with you because of your friend. In other words, they knew you before you had whatever job the yard and who have ideally no interest in the job that you do.
Yeah. So my friends with the odd the odd exception, like kind of close local circle of friends have no interest whatsoever in politics. Now, I wrote them into, you know, dropping leaflets and putting up posters and all those things friends do to help. But no, it's great and it's great on a night out or something to be just, you know, talking to people normally about things that have nothing to do with work rather than, you know, we all collect kind of work friends and we all kind of socialize in groups and work in whatever job you have.
But it is nice to be able to switch off and actually hang out with friends who couldn't care less what you're the minister for, you know.
And on that, how do you switch off? Because I'm sure whatever way you used to switch off in the past few months, have you even been able to do that so in the last few months? Truthfully, no. And I don't think and I think that's really a good thing. So wouldn't it be a good time to switch off in the middle of the covid pandemic? Boredom and the last few months were really intense. And actually only when I moved from health to this new role that I realize how intense they were, because actually, you know, you kind of you can really feel a kind of tightness in your chest.
And it was kind of well, that's not normal because, you know, when you're stuck in the middle of something, you're you're you're you're kind of working so hard and constantly. You don't really realize until you actually come to a stop.
So in general, though, I mean, there's very easy ways I get to switch off now. I have an 18 month old baby. She definitely doesn't care what job I do. And, you know, there's nappies to be changed and, you know, a bottle made up at night and all of that sort of stuff that grinds you very, very quickly. Pictures to be drawn. Drawn is the big thing now. So that kind of that enables you to switch off because you have to know and it's very enjoyable.
And in general then just hanging out, my friends locally and greystones where I live as well.
OK, so the first time you felt laughed at and before you launch into this, I was talking to Sarah, who works with you, and I kind of said because with this podcast there are there set questions. Yes. And so I like for people to read them in advance because I think sometimes people who don't read them in advance afterwards, they go, oh, I wish I'd read them. So I kind of said, Sarah there last week.
I said, is there any chance? She said, yeah, he has now. He was reading of it. He read the first time he felt left out. And I think it might have brought up kind of weird memories. She kind of tipped me off, said I don't know how he felt about that one. So how do you feel about that one?
I know for sure that many times I don't have that particular project, particularly in politics. But but at a younger age, I remember I used to be I used to have my mother and father play to get pets. Right. So we've had pretty much you know, we've had what have we had we've had dogs, dogs, cats, rabbits.
The latest fad I had back when I was I don't know what age I was maybe 11 or 12 as I wanted a hamster. Right. And and you know what always happens when a pet you get a pet in, your parents end up looking after you.
So anyway, I got this hamster kind them fail because my mother's friend Phyllis had persuaded her to let me guess. Right. Phil, the hamster lived in my bedroom and one night I'm asleep and at two o'clock in the morning and I'm kind of start to wake up and realize there's something on my face and I can feel this thing crawling on my face, pick up this thing and freak out, not know whether it's, you know, deep sleep, whether it's a mouse at the rat, my pet I'm starting with.
So run out of the bedroom. I was only about 11 or 12 and he emphasized that again. And I could wake up the house. My mom, my dad and the whole family ridiculed me for quite a long period of time. And Simon's great friendship and affinity with rodents came to an abrupt. Did the hamster have to go now?
The hamster stayed away. Right. And in fact, I think the hamster passed away when we were on holidays in France, mean we all had to be terribly sad that the pet hamster right away. But I my my hamster phase, I went back to dogs. I got you a safer bet.
Safer bet. You mentioned your parents there. Yep. Just while you mentioned them. How have they found the past few months for you? I don't know. I mean, I have incredibly supportive parents. Again, no interest whatsoever in politics, you know, as a no political involvement might have been my biggest supporters and helpers. And if you even had if I could even explain one percent of how much my parents have done for me and my brother and my sister, I probably wouldn't be doing a justice.
So they done a huge, huge amount to to help us do whatever we want in our lives. My mom always used to say when we were growing up that, you know, success is liking what you do. And she just wanted her kids to do whatever they wanted to do in life. And and that's what we have done. So they've been really, really supportive. You know, I suppose they worry like any parents, you know, they were you overworking or you get a text and you're looking very tired on the day that you're sleeping and sort of stuff, you know, and obviously like it, like for everybody in the lockdown was was difficult because they live really close to us.
But obviously we weren't able to see them. And my mom has an underlying health condition she had to cocoon. And it's just the normal challenges that everybody face. So it was very nice to be able to kind of everyone it was. But whenever it was allowed. Yeah. When we were allowed to be outdoors again. Yeah, it was really good because as I say, we're very close family and I've only moved about five minutes away from their house, maybe some.
Metiria, I don't venture too far either. I'm just around the corner of my very it's very handy when they when you haven't had time for the dinner and your throw it on or something. That's great. And do you think about I'm sure you do think about this, you know, how the effect it maybe has on their lives or your siblings lives and how they might if you're, you know, facing harsh criticism? Do they feel that for you?
Yeah, they do.
They do. And I've always conscious of the fact as my wife as well. Yes. Sorry. Yes, of course, Minister. She was a nurse that can't afford. No, no.
But look, we've always we just kind of compartmentalize these things and say, you know, I just had a job, had a job as health minister. I have a job as a minister, and I do the job, come home in the evening. And it's just it's just a job to that. And of course, it's a job that takes up a lot of a lot of time. But, yeah, I think I think your family always feel that.
I mean, you must see it as well. Like, I mean, yeah, we're kind of I'm not sure anyone's made to be able to take criticism, but, you know, we're used to what we sign up for it. They don't. Yes. And we had one or two particularly kind of horrific incidences where we had these awful people who decided to kind of protest outside our family home when our baby was only three weeks older. And, you know, that's sort of horrific images, bad words, but that's nice stuff.
So but in general, then in general, we yeah, of course, they created more abortion. We look at kind of support structure, which is good.
But equally they celebrate the the praise. Absolutely. Yeah, no, absolutely.
And you couldn't do these jobs. But I mean, that's the thing that I don't think people forget about. Politics are like you hear a lot of kind of criticism of politicians involving kind of family members and, you know, hiring them for jobs. I haven't done that. But I'm making the point more broadly. You can actually see how it happens because your whole family gets involved. You know, they they share your wins, they share your loss.
And it's like a family business.
There's a passion there that no one else. Yeah, there is. And and it was like I say, you put you put yourself out there. And with that comes praise sometimes and criticism of the times. And that can be that can be hard or gracious, depending on which it is for your loved ones. Yeah. OK, so I'm in the moment.
If you didn't laugh, you'd cry. Have a little less than OK. I've written the word grief. Right. And not the country. The stuff that's happened. The deep fat fried. Oh right. So it's another random story. But it's funny what comes back to what you think, because I don't you don't ever think about this, but I know that's why they're there. Help with these questions. I was actually went through your mind to ask.
I don't know, but I know.
So again, a story involving my childhood and my brother and sister this time, both of them.
So my my mom's dad passed away and he was before he passed away, obviously, my mom was not with her siblings. Spend a lot of time in their house and saying goodbye to their dad and my sister.
My brother and I were at home, my dad, and we decided we'd clean the house because my mom was coming home for a bit of a break before she'd have to go kind of back up to say a final goodbye to her dad. And we were running around in the house. I can't remember what age we were. And I was teenagers. I was a teenager. My brother Adam was I was nine or ten or something of that.
Adam, Hazam, Adam has Asperger's syndrome and he's very high functioning, very bright way brighter than I am.
But one of the things Adam tends to do, I think he calls it's Demming so he can he can kind of run on the spot and shake his hands and stuff it the way he kind of lets out his energy. He explains it much better than I did. I run around the house and clean it up. And this is great and we're delighted with ourselves. Our mom is going to be home in a couple of minutes. The whole house is going to be really, really clean.
Next thing, I'm lifting the deep fryer off the counter. Thankfully, it's cool off the counter to put it away. I don't I spinach or onto the kitchen floor. We live in a bungalow.
Just my brother then decided I'd be a really good time because he's panicked to start stepping in the grease.
No. So in his socks starts jumping up and down arms again. You have to know my brother had to be there, but all of a sudden Adam is effectively dancing in the grease.
Then then we start said No, Adam, what does Adam then do to our boat and around the house in the snow?
So, no, there's no immaculately clean taste that we were so chuffed that we don't everything is no grease rich.
Or so we have a great idea. My sister and I, you know, we do we get them up. So, no, you don't apply water to this.
I didn't know that at the time. I know. So we decided to vigorously start mopping the floor of the House.
And of course, that just made the grease go.
No, I'm in the middle of the mop and my mom opens the door, you know, delighted to see our children and her husband and goes and yeah.
Now one of those times what we do is we just actually had to that after know she was coming home for a few minutes. Yes. We tried to paint her as and we directed the whole place. Your timing was impeccable.
Timing was impeccable. I like that. I like that.
OK, Simon, you are no laughing matter moment in life.
What that has to be, that has to be covered really.
But you probably wouldn't expect me to say anything else. Really, because. Yes, so we'd obviously been through the general election without getting involved in the politics of all of us. I had presumed that that may well mean the end of my tenure in the Department of Health.
I had even part of my office and the Department of Health.
There was this you know, it was going to be a government. Nobody really knew what was going on and am but I kind of had an instinct that either my party wouldn't be in government or I wouldn't be in health. So was in the office that packed up the office in the department and move lots of the stuff I had to my constituency office.
And then by and I don't know, about 10 days, two weeks after the general election and all the dust settles and covid really starts to take off an audit. And yet the world just changed. And and all of a sudden, you know, there's instead of kind of just kind of passing time in the Department of Health and keeping the show ticking over until the new person gets there, you're now engulfed in what has been the biggest global pandemic in our world.
And you're being briefed and informed of just a situation with eye watering figures in terms of how many people might get sick in our country, how many people might die in our country.
I mean, you're talking about tens of thousands. And this is the advice you've been given by bringing people like our chief medical officer, Tony Hoolahan, your A.M. one meeting and literally the middle of the night. And you remember this around St. Patrick's Day and the T-shirt was in Lyrica was that each of them was in Washington. And we're sitting in the Department of Health and there's an emergency meeting of the National Public Health Emergency Team and a decision to effectively begin to close down the country, close schools the next day.
And I think we left the Department of Health maybe two or three that morning for an announcement the next morning. I mean, just kind of.
Yeah. Stuff that you'd never imagine in your life that you'd be dealing with stuff that I think anyone in our country, in the world believed we'd be dealing with it now all of a sudden become a real reality. And and then you're you know, you're waiting for the daily figures.
How many people today or the chief medical officer say have have gotten sick with this? How many people would have passed away? And, um, and yeah, it got the scale of the decisions and the situation we find ourselves in in Ireland and worldwide is just even though it's hard to get your head fully around, is it a blur now or is it even a blur yet?
Are you still in the in the blur? Yeah, it's it's it's it's peculiar for me now because the pandemic is still here. Yeah. I'm obviously still a member of the government. I'm not a member.
I'm not a minister of health. So you're you're you're at one remove from where you were in relation to it. But it is all still a bit of a blur. I mean, I think and I think it's going to be a blur for all of us, for everyone in our country until until it's passed on, until we all get a chance to kind of take a deep breath and see how we've come through. I think it's been a it's been a it's been a weird time because not that I don't want anything that I say to take away from the absolute tragedy and that has been seen for so many people's lives, the loss of life, people getting really sick, the devastation for business.
I mean, this has been a devastating time for people. I fully get that. And but it's also been an incredible time in terms of seeing the best of people. And and it's funny what sticks in your mind, because loads of I saw loads of really good examples of people just being saved. This has been really decent.
But the one that really sticks in my mind is erm policemen and women and it's a small example, but I just thought this is class and people are, people are understandably worried about how are we going to look after older people, people living on their own, people who need someone to check in on them, and all of a sudden you begin to realise that the logistics like where do where to all the old people live? How do you find all the people that you need to find in your community?
How do you make sure you look after everyone and who knows where everybody lives? The postman, the horsewoman. So the postal post, men and women came to government and they basically said, look, we're willing not just to deliver the post. We're going we're willing to check in on people to and in a socially decent way, you know, knock on the door, check someone's OK if they need a message, picked up some medicine picked up from the shop and they did that and they didn't ask for an extra euro and sent, you know, nobody nobody looked for anything for themselves.
People just pulled together. I just thought that was an amazing act of generosity at a time when we were all being told to kind of stay at home. Don't open your doors, you know, be careful. Yeah. About these people. Yeah. They were really going above and beyond. So and there's there's countless examples of that. Gay clubs around the country setting up WhatsApp groups and. Yeah, pretty amazing stuff. So I suppose that is one of the heartening things at their very worst time for our country.
You do see the very best in people. That's kind of amazing. And I didn't I think we you know, we should be proud of that as Irish people because it didn't happen in every other country. So in some countries, covid became really divisive. Yes, we won't name them, but we all know them. Yes. Where they became really political and divisive and people used a kind of for political gain or to attack each other. And it became them versus us in Ireland did actually weirdly drew people together.
And it was. Sort of way, it's kind of cliched now, but by staying impartial, we actually did become closer. You know, I think we should be proud of that as a country. Absolutely.
Is there a part of you that found it hard to let go of your role as minister for help at this time? Was there. Did you kind of go.
Yeah. I did not not not not out of any not out of any political reason.
So when you're invested in eating, breathing, sleeping, covid-19 and covid, it's still here.
I am still a member of the government still involved. But yeah, it was it was it was a big change.
OK, Simon, the person you always laugh with, my daughter Sarah. So she's as I was saying, she's at that age now where she's 18 months. So she's kind of, you know, the way they become funny.
So, yeah, for a while there for other babies, they're kind of scary for a while. I find that when my sister's kids, I was a bit afraid, like, how do I hold? Like, I'm not that I was terrible at it, but it's when you can make a bit of crack. Think it's great.
Yeah. You know, when you're exactly as you say, when you know they're so fragile and you're picking them up and you're trying to watch the other shows. This is the way I do this. And you go into those, you know, prenatal class and all that sort of stuff. I learned all all these sort of things. And then all of a sudden you come home one evening and they're now a little person. Yeah. You know, sort of out there running around and there.
And they have developed a little personality. So the big thing I was jumping. So it's all about jumping on the couch and throwing herself back on the couch and and laughing. And she just loves laughing. Now you have to get the grease going.
And she could only do that someone else. Yeah. So, so, so, so, so definitely my daughter Sarah.
And did being a dad like did that change how maybe you approached your work, maybe in a way you would have thrown yourself into it kind of more fearlessly before.
Do you kind of go at it? Did it did change my perspective on things in a way that I didn't know whether it would. I suppose you can't know whether or no until it happened. So it becomes when you're talking about. So I ended up hearing from lots of children around the country during covid, and it's kind of really taken aback by this. But kids started writing to me and sending me cards and making cards and telling me, oh, covid was going to go in for them and you know, what they were doing with their day and how they were missing their grandparents and some funny stories and some sad stories.
And and it did just make it very real for me because I was thinking of the impact that it has on children. And what if that was your daughter and you know you through. So you do think about things about like the closure of schools and stuff. All of a sudden you don't think about them in the abstract. You start thinking of, well, how would I feel if that was my daughter, if she was older? So change my perspective in that sense, in that it just became real because you're coming home and looking at a little person examination, OK, a time where you had the last laugh, Simon.
And I don't want to hear that you're not the kind of person who likes to have the last laugh because we all like to have a bit of a laugh.
I am so so this this is kind of a this is kind of a moment where I was exposed a little bit of ageism and we won. So which is important.
And so there was a time when I decided I was going to run for politics first. I was twenty two I think. Yeah, twenty two. And I wanted to run for the county council and I remember going to a meeting and then not give too much away. I remember going to a political meeting and I remember man after man standing up and they were all men and they were all of a certain age standing up one after the other saying things like, you know, learn to walk before you can run.
That was that was a refrain used quite a number of times in the shoe.
Should you just wait your turn and do it anyway? I didn't wait my turn because you don't wait your turn in politics or in life now. And if you can do something, you've got to go for it. And I got on the ticket and ran and I got elected and I got elected with a what, a very large vote. And I remember just looking back and there, you know, I did walk and run. Yes, I did.
So I find I found a lot. And I look, sometimes people are right, but I've had a lot a lot in politics, a lot in Irish society as well. There is this kind of a just thing. Obviously, you're not old enough yet or I'll wait your turn. And I've had a lot of that through my through my career. And that was one of those moments that always plays in my mind where I was told, learn to walk before you can run.
And I decided to to take the plunge into Sprint. Yes. And it worked out OK.
I love it. Simon, if laughter wasn't the best medicine, what would be seen as that?
I'm not the health minister and I can I can concede that Bashar Bergers would be really I nobody really believes that about.
I tell you, I'm sorry, but I wouldn't put you down as a person.
There you go. My metabolism, which I think slows down with age, but my metabolism is so far. My friend, though there's a history of there's been friends on the male side of my family and they hit a certain age. All right. OK. Buddhism slows down, so I to enjoy it while it lasts, but yeah, I know a sneaky better burger. I've never had one. Oh, very nice. No. Is it just the meat that's buttered and then normal born?
No, you don't.
Whether you can have it with a bomb.
But I'll be a bit controversial just in butter. Oh, wow. Yeah, I highly recommend it. Delicious. OK, I've heard it like better Mars bars, buttered sausage.
I love doing it, but just my my metabolism is in this kind, so that's why I haven't gone there. OK. That's right.
Aw. Oh. And we're actually out here quickfire for it. Oh. Are you ready for this. I'm ready. The actor that always makes you laugh. I've no idea.
You must be frozen. What movie have you of. You laughed out loud. Oh, I haven't seen a movie so bloody long way past.
Let's keep going. Sure. There's not too many more games that the actress don't have. OK, the comedian. You always laugh at Simon. Oh, am I. Michael. Michael. Michael. Oh yeah, I know all the time on the stage. I love Michael Macintyre. I love Michael MacIntire. I also love Wilderman hugs.
Oh they're excellent. Yeah. I've seen them twice. Oh yes. Life. Yes, inefficacy. They're very good.
Do you see their latest sketch about school? No. Oh, you need to watch that. I used to watch it every Thursday.
They put up a new thing, but yeah, I've gone it out of the habit. But I've been to see them the last two years in a row. I won't explain it fully, but they're in school. They all have their masks on in the classroom and they're all making animal noises and so on.
The teacher can't figure out who's making noise because of the maths is very fragrant.
You don't have an actor and actress. Surely this movie you've burst out loud, burst out laughing.
Oh, I've had a brain freeze. Not like not like your clock did.
OK, well, look, Simon. Your best or your worst joke? Have you got a terrible joke you'd like to share with us? We've got jokes that I couldn't possibly share. No career ending, career ending jokes in a career. Any jokes I've got to know, you know, that I can share. OK, well, look, I won't push you.
Thank you. You can tell me off Air Minister Simon, I'll give your official title. Minister Simon Harris, thank you so much for sharing the last of your life, because I'm sure.
Thank you for listening to the laughs of your life with Minister Simon Harris, I hope you enjoyed loads of other great guests to come this season. So don't forget to like subscribe rate review and all that other stuff. This podcast is brought to you by Collaborative Studios.