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Julian Smith 'joy' at bringing social change to Northern Ireland as secretary of state

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Julian Smith

Julian Smith

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Julian Smith

Former Northern Ireland Secretary of State Julian Smith described his 204 days in the role as a "joy" and a "huge privilege".

Mr Smith, who recently enjoyed a holiday here, is widely credited with playing a crucial role restoring devolution in Northern Ireland earlier this year after a three-year impasse.

He was replaced by Brandon Lewis just five weeks later by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He is regarded by the public as one of the most effective and popular NI SoS in recent years.

In a special interview with BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme on Monday the MP for Skipton and Ripon said he would continue to help Northern Ireland any way he could.

"It was a joy, it was demanding and it was relentless. Yes, there was more to do... being an MP gives you a fantastic platform to help behind the scenes," he told presenter, William Crawley.

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New beginning: First Minister Arlene Foster (right) and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill with (back, from left), the then Tanaiste Simon Coveney, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State Julian Smith

New beginning: First Minister Arlene Foster (right) and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill with (back, from left), the then Tanaiste Simon Coveney, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State Julian Smith

PA

New beginning: First Minister Arlene Foster (right) and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill with (back, from left), the then Tanaiste Simon Coveney, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State Julian Smith

"I'm really committed long-term to do anything that's needed to assist a part of the UK that has gone through the most horrendous time."

Recalling the moment he was offered the role of Northern Ireland secretary after he had spent the afternoon in the pub drinking "far too many beers" after he lost his job as Conservative chief whip, he said it was a "huge honour" to accept the role.

"I was really excited to do the job," he explained.

He admitted he was facing various challenges when he first arrived here, from reinstating the Executive to the Wrightbus crisis and the impact of Brexit, which he said he wanted to tackle in a "way which kept the Good Friday Agreement safe".

Mr Smith was also magnanimous when describing about how he felt when he was ousted from his role in a cabinet reshuffle by the Prime Minister - just weeks after being awarded a 'Minister of the Year' accolade.

The ex-SoS had played an important role in advocating for victims of historical institutional sexual abuse to receive compensation.

"The Prime Minister of the day always has that right... I'm extremely pleased we got Stormont back. It was not a given," he explained.

"The opportunity to deliver on historic child abuse, deliver on abortion, and these sweeping changes in the social sphere in Northern Ireland were huge privileges."

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First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and the new Executive meets with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State Julian Smith.    Photo by William Cherry/Presseye

First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and the new Executive meets with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State Julian Smith. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye

First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and the new Executive meets with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State Julian Smith. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye

In between musical tracks played personally chosen by the MP, which showcased his eclectic tastes from classical to Pet Shop Boy's It's a Sin and 90s club favourite, Rhythm is a Dancer by Snap, Mr Smith reflected on his hopes for Northern Ireland's political future.

He said he wanted less focus on the constitutional issue and more on the people, adding there are some "extremely talented" assembly members in NI.

"I think the biggest message and the biggest thing that I hope will happen is that, over and above the constitutional debates, in the back of every politician's mind is that they stood on the sidelines for three years and didn't lead despite being paid and service the interests of the people of Northern Ireland," he said.

"I think if all parties focus on governing now - yes have a debate on constitutional issues and obviously there are big topics there - but there's a lot that can be done on the north-south bodies, on climate change, on infrastructure."

He added: "I was really struck when we did the Stormont deal, people were literally coming up to me in the street and just thanking me for getting it back up and running.

"That was because, not that they didn't have views on the constitution, but at the moment the focus needs to be on getting stuff done, whether it's education, healthcare, whatever."

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Former NI Secretary of State Julian Smith during his first visit to Northern Ireland outside the Guildhall in Londonderry

Former NI Secretary of State Julian Smith during his first visit to Northern Ireland outside the Guildhall in Londonderry

Former NI Secretary of State Julian Smith during his first visit to Northern Ireland outside the Guildhall in Londonderry

Mr Smith said he was "delighted and over the moon" when the parties agreed to reinstate power sharing, stressing with the ongoing issue of Brexit and the pandemic arriving not long after, it had shown to the opportune time for it happen.

"If we'd gone in to either no deal last year without some form of governance or this pandemic without a government we would have had major issues," he said.

"So I think the biggest thing is to applaud all those political leaders for getting through that period."

Belfast Telegraph