Shock in Northern Ireland as Julian Smith is sacked weeks after brokering deal to restore devolution
Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill expressed concern over reports Northern Ireland Secretary Julian O'Neill was sacked over commitments in the power-sharing agreement to introduce legislation on legacy issues.
While DUP leader Arlene Foster thanked Mr Smith for his help in getting devolution restored, the deputy first minister called on the British government to ensure that legacy issues are dealt with by the secretary of state.
He was also thanked by survivors of institutional abuse for his role in establishing a compensation scheme.
Mr Smith's sacking caused shock in Northern Ireland. He was held in high regard for his role in ending the three-year political impasse in Northern Ireland and bringing about the restoration of power sharing.
His sacking on Thursday means he is the second shortest-serving secretary of state in history.
Michelle O'Neill said reports Mr Smith was sacked as a result of committing to bring forward legislation to implement the legacy bodies agreed at Stormont House was "very concerning for victims of the conflict and their families".
The New Decade, New Approach deal pledged to introduce legislation within 100 days.
Ms O'Neill said: "The British government has already dragged this process out for more than five years, delaying the publication of legislation again and again.
"Some victims have been waiting up to five decades for truth and disclosure."
Julian Smith said serving the people of Northern Ireland had been "the biggest privilege".
He added: "I am extremely grateful to Boris Johnson for giving me the chance to serve this amazing part of our country. The warmth and support from people across NI has been incredible. Thank you so much."
His replacement is expected to be announced on Thursday afternoon with Brandon Lewis reported to be a potential replacement.
The last thing Northern Ireland needs is a Boris Johnson ‘yes man or woman'Steve Aiken
Posting on social media, First Minister Arlene Foster said: "We may not have always agreed (we did sometimes) but his dedication to the role was incredible," she tweeted.
"Best wishes to him and his family. Always welcome in Fermanagh."
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie, speaking on the BBC Nolan Show, said Mr Smith's handling of the Northern Ireland talks with the Prime Minister may have cost him his job.
He said: "I am not surprised. I like Julian Smith and thought he would have been a good secretary of state in the long term but the reality is in the New Decade, New Deal it seems he has bounced the Prime Minister in regards to legacy in exactly the same way he bounced the Ulster Unionist Party in regards to legacy and I think that has cost him his job."
Smith = second shortest tenure as N. Ireland Secretary. Previous shortest was Francis Pym (4 months). They both got Stormont up and running again. Maybe thatâs a bad career move...— Jon Tonge (@JonTonge) February 13, 2020
Speculation about Mr Smith's position centred on the terms of the Stormont deal, amid Tory concerns it could pave the way for prosecutions of British soldiers.
But allies of the axed minister said it was "absolute cr*p" to suggest that Mr Johnson and Number 10 had not been kept informed of the process and details of the deal.
U have been such an effective SOS for NI at a time of real challenge & risk. Without your leadership I donât believe NI would have a Govt today. Thank you @JulianSmithUK for your trust, friendship and courage; UK & #Ireland can look to future with more confidence because of it.— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney) February 13, 2020
There was widespread tributes for Mr Smith from Northern Ireland politicians.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood thanked Mr Smith for his "tireless commitment to devolution, for the work you've done for victims of historical institutional abuse and for securing much needed resource for Derry".
"Sacking the most successful Secretary of State in a decade shows Johnson's dangerous indifference to us," he added.
UUP leader Steve Aiken wish Mr Smith and his family well, adding that no one can question his dedication to the job.
"We had our differences, none more so than over his approach to the New Decade, New Approach document, but his work in getting redress for the victims of institutional abuse is something that he should be very proud of. He showed much needed compassion," he said.
“Julian Smith`s successor should take a leaf out of his book and spend time in Northern Ireland getting to know the place and its people. The last thing Northern Ireland needs is a Boris Johnson ‘yes’ man or woman.”
Leo Varadkar also paid tribute to the outgoing secretary of state on social media.
"In eight months as Secretary of State, Julian, you helped to restore power sharing in Stormont, secured an agreement with us to avoid a hard border, plus marriage equality. You are one of Britain’s finest politicians of our time. Thank you," he tweeted.
Jon McCourt, chairman of Survivors North West, thanked Mr Smith for his work in getting compensation for victims of historical institutional abuse.
He tweeted: "Sad to hear of your removal from office. Deeply indebted for your work on HIA, this would not have crossed the line without your committed and passionate support. On behalf of Survivors NW thank you and we wish you well in the future."
Institutional abuse campaigner Margaret McGuckin added: "We were looking forward, the future we thought was brighter and that was because of Julian Smith. He’s too good to be a politician
"He was sorely needed here in Northern Ireland where the former secretary of state would do nothing."
"The world needs more like him."
The campaigner said Mr Smith should leave the Tory party.
Mr Smith was in the job for 204 days, while his predecessor Karen Bradley was in the post for 562 days, despite being widely seen as an ineffective secretary of state.