Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: A safe pair of hands and a real grafter - why the new Secretary of State has a lot of admirers

New Secretary of State Julian Smith leaves No10 yesterday
New Secretary of State Julian Smith leaves No10 yesterday
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

New Secretary of State Julian Smith is being portrayed as some sort of DUP stooge.

That's hardly surprising given his lavish praise of the party when he addressed its annual conference two years ago.

"I have been so impressed by the calibre of DUP MPs in Westminster led by Nigel Dodds. They are a credit to the DUP and they are a credit to Northern Ireland. My door as chief whip is open whenever you want," he gushed.

Yet while the party had a good working relationship with Mr Smith at Westminster, he wasn't matey with the DUP before its votes mattered, and he most definitely is not on message with it on Brexit or on social issues.

Labour sources told the Belfast Telegraph last night that the new Secretary of State had been "instrumental" in helping its MPs' abortion and same-sex marriage amendments through the House of Commons this month.

Parliamentary arithmetic will constrain Mr Smith's freedom of action in Northern Ireland so there's little to fear in his tenure here for the DUP in the immediate future.

Those in the party who have dealt with him directly speak highly of his ability.

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Yet he certainly wouldn't have been their first choice as Secretary of State. The DUP were very keen on Theresa Villiers, but Dublin's opinion of her meant she was never heading back to Belfast again.

Mrs Foster's party regarded former Immigration Minister and former chief whip Mark Harper - with whom it is close at Westminster - as the front-runner for the Northern Ireland job. Yet Boris Johnson opted for Mr Smith, whose previous strong support for Remain may have enhanced his credentials for the role.

His appointment is said to have come as a huge surprise to the new Secretary of State, who reportedly believed he would not secure a place in the Cabinet.

A Labour source said: "Julian Smith is a very good appointment, which has pleasantly surprised us. He worked hard to ensure time in the Commons for amendments to the Northern Ireland Bill from Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn. He was very straight to deal with. He pledged that the Government wouldn't pull the Bill and he proved to be a man of his word.

"He is a pragmatist, not an idealogue. He's an extremely logical person, quiet and very reserved. He's not a big personality but he's far from the worst person the Tories could have sent to Northern Ireland."

A DUP MP said he had "a fairly good working relationship" with Mr Smith. "As an individual, he's a little dour. He's certainly not got Boris's charisma or oratorical skills. He's low-key, the archetypal safe pair of hands," the MP said.

Another senior DUP figure was more positive. "Julian looks rather fierce in photographs but I've always found him good company. He is incredibly bright and capable. Karen Bradley was totally outmanoeuvred by Simon Coveney.

"Julian will not be playing second fiddle. He'll build a good relationship with Simon but he'll be able to go toe-to-toe with him when he needs to."

While Mr Smith's lack of previous ministerial experience has been highlighted, the DUP source claimed it wasn't significant.

"As chief whip, Julian was far from a one-man band. He had a dozen other whips under him and was managing 300-plus MPs. That's a logistically significant feat, and the Northern Ireland Office is hardly a massive department."

The DUP insider stressed Mr Smith's credentials as a heavy hitter. "Outside the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary, being Government chief whip is the most important role in Cabinet," he said.

"Julian has made decisions on everything and been consulted on everything. The nature of his previous role means he will come here knowing far more about Northern Ireland than Karen Bradley did."

The DUP insider described him as a grafter.

"You rarely see him without his mobile to his ear. He'd often be at Westminster until midnight, and he'd be back at the crack of dawn. He regularly works weekends, so he will put the hours in here."

Mr Smith is not a Tory toff. He was born in Stirling, Scotland, where he attended the local comprehensive.

The 47-year-old is married to Amanda, who gave birth to daughter Poppy in 2013.

He has been MP for the safe Tory seat of Skipton and Ripon in North Yorkshire for nine years. He enjoyed a 21,000 strong majority at the last Westminster election. He lists the violin and piano as hobbies. He was also a junior international squash player.

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