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Alban Maginness

Could sacking of Julian Smith lead to London Government reneging on the Stormont deal?

Alban Maginness


New Secretary of State Brandon Lewis must introduce legacy legislation within 100 days as promised and also increase funding to the Executive, says Alban Maginness

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From left: Boris Johnson, Michelle O’Neill , Arlene Foster and Julian Smith

From left: Boris Johnson, Michelle O’Neill , Arlene Foster and Julian Smith

AFP via Getty Images

From left: Boris Johnson, Michelle O’Neill , Arlene Foster and Julian Smith

Politics can be a most thankless and cruel business. This became brutally clear to Julian Smith over the past week. Despite his mighty achievement in restoring a power-sharing Executive to Stormont, Smith was sacked by an ungrateful Boris Johnson from his position as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

His dismissal was vindictive and ruthless. He certainly wasn't sacked for failing in his office, but perversely because he was too successful and a Remainer, and therefore a potential threat to the Prime Minister.

Within seven months Smith, in an active partnership with Tanaiste Simon Coveney, had achieved more than any other Secretary of State had in the previous seven years.

Not only had he restored Stormont, which had been a zombie parliament for three years, but had wrapped up a whole series of outstanding issues, including the Irish language and legacy issues.

It was a remarkable achievement for a British minister with little experience of politics here. In short, he was that rarest of things - an Englishman who understood Irish politics.

Naturally, his previous experience as a bone crunching chief whip at Westminster helped him to both bludgeon and delicately persuade our politicians into a comprehensive agreement, for which we all should be grateful.

While Smith could not, and did not, outshine the most popular and most effective of all Secretaries of State, the late Mo Mowlam, incredibly he managed in his very short tenure in office to really engage with people.

By dint of his own talent and personality he was able to empathise with ordinary people like the survivors and victims of institutional abuse.

They regarded him as the most effective and most compassionate Secretary of State they had ever met.

It was he who at long last ensured that the necessary legislation for a compensation scheme for victims, as recommended by Judge Sir Anthony Hart, was pushed through the Commons in the absence of the power-sharing Assembly at Stormont. No wonder victims' campaigner Margaret McGuckin good humouredly and appropriately nicknamed him our Guardian Angel!

Compare his record with the combined records of the calamitous Karen Bradley, the clueless Theresa Villiers, the do-nothing James Brokenshire and the partisan Owen Paterson.

None of these former ministers achieved anything positive, and indeed made matters worse by failing to act as neutral guarantors (as obliged under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement) to address outstanding issues such as legacy, which was well within the legislative competence of the office of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Paterson notably made matters worse by ending 50/50 Catholic recruitment to the PSNI. The Policing Board is now trying to address the inevitable consequences of his ill-judged and premature decision. If he had let 50/50 continue, the problem of Catholic recruitment would not now have become such a pressing issue.

The fact that Smith's sacking united our usually disparate parties into criticising the Prime Minister's decision says much in favour of a politician who all parties here recognised as someone who could do - and did do - the business of politics well.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood in particular said that his dismissal was "a strategic error".

Alliance leader Naomi Long bluntly stated that she was: "hugely disappointed to see a truly engaged SoS removed from office at a time when continuity is needed around a still fragile political agreement".

But does his sacking represent a strategic change, or simply a tactical manoeuvre on Johnson's part to make his Cabinet fully Brexit-proof and absolutely loyal to himself?

What would be alarming is that Smith's departure might indicate the Prime Minister and his new appointee Brandon Lewis will not hold to the New Decade, New Approach commitments made by Smith on behalf of the British Government.

If that were to come about, the Assembly could be in for a very bumpy ride, especially if Lewis reneges on the commitment to legislate at Westminster on legacy issues within 100 days. Lewis must also produce the much needed financial assistance promised by the British Government to the newly-formed Executive to urgently tackle outstanding issues.

If these matters are not honoured, they will add to the shock of the success of Sinn Fein in the Republic and will inevitably put serious strain upon relations within the Assembly, especially if Sinn Fein ends up in government in Dublin.

This undesirable outcome may be prevented if the current speculation of a grand coalition between Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Greens materialises.

Such a coalition is long overdue and will bring to an end the absurdity of Civil War divisions in 21st century Ireland.

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