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Editor's Viewpoint

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has big shoes to fill after Julian Smith

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Former Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith

AFP via Getty Images

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith

There has been widespread shock and not a little disappointment at the Prime Minister's decision to replace Julian Smith as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Fresh from playing a key role in securing the return of devolution to Stormont and compensation to victims of historical abuse, he leaves the province after only 204 days in office - the second shortest tenure on record.

It appears his sacking was the result of a disagreement with Boris Johnson's feared special adviser Dominic Cummings, and it is known that Mr Smith and the Prime Minister had different views on the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the province, pensions for the bereaved and survivors of the Troubles, and also on the implementation of promised legacy legislation.

As was seen in the surprise resignation of the Chancellor yesterday, it is clear that Number 10 demands absolute loyalty, whether justified or not.

Mr Smith received widespread praise for his work in Northern Ireland, being seen as even-handed and focused.

Indeed, he received very generous praise from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his colleague Simon Coveney.

There were some wry smiles among commentators when Mr Smith's replacement Brandon Lewis posted on Twitter that he follows fantastic colleagues as predecessors. Mr Smith may well fall into that category, but the names of Theresa Villiers, James Brokenshire and Karen Bradley will be lucky to merit even a footnote in the political history of this place.

Mr Lewis arrives at a hugely important time for Northern Ireland as negotiations continue over a Brexit trade deal. The one-time Remainer will need to weigh his words more carefully than he did late last year when he said there would be no border down the Irish Sea. No doubt he will be reminded of that fairly often over the coming months.

He will also have an important role to play in keeping the pledge on legacy issues in the recent deal that saw devolution restored. It says legislation on new legacy institutions would be introduced in 100 days, a view which does not meet with universal approval.

His relationship with Sinn Fein following its stunning electoral victory in the Republic and its growing demands for a border poll will also be keenly observed.

Mr Lewis will need to show the sure-footedness of his immediate predecessor on a whole range of issues.

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