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Jon Tonge: A friend of the DUP but tricky tasks lie ahead...

New Secretary of State must keep party onside, but looming legislation on same-sex marriage and abortion liberalisation could strain the relationship. By Jon Tonge


Stella Creasy

Stella Creasy

Stella Creasy

Amid the furore over Boris Johnson's Cabinet appointments, Julian Smith's posting as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland appears one of the new Prime Minister's shrewder moves. Smith has spent the last two years keeping the DUP happy. The DUP's confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Conservatives was signed, sealed and delivered by the chief whips of the two parties. It was a Julian Smith-Jeffrey Donaldson deal as much as a Theresa May-Arlene Foster/Nigel Dodds partnership.

Smith is acutely aware of the fragility of the Conservatives' parliamentary majority. It was he who arrived in Belfast to shower praise upon his new friends at the first DUP conference after the deal.

The autumn 2017 gathering heard Smith describe the DUP'S Westminster team as a "credit to the DUP and to Northern Ireland". It was a level of effusiveness even Boris Johnson struggled to match at the following year's conference.

Smith and Johnson were well-received. That's hardly surprising when you consider the popularity of the confidence-and-supply deal among unionists. The University of Liverpool's post-2017 election study showed that only 4% of DUP voters opposed the pact.

Among UUP voters, the percentage opposed was similarly low.

For Smith, a move to Northern Ireland might resemble tranquillity compared to being chief whip of an unmanageable party. He presided over the worst Government defeat in history when Theresa May's EU withdrawal agreement was downed by 230 votes last January. Yet given the divisions within the Conservative Party, there was more chance of selling Irish unity to the DUP.

It is perhaps testimony to Smith's understated powers of persuasion that he at least managed to reduce the final margin of defeat, in March, by nearly 200 votes.

The good news for Smith is that he doesn't have tough acts to follow. Indeed, considering the terms of James Brokenshire and Karen Bradley, he doesn't have any act to follow. By doing nothing he will at least achieve parity with his predecessors.

Given Smith's proximity to the DUP, however, there will be inevitable complaints from nationalists that a Secretary of State so beholden cannot be neutral or even-handed. They have a point. Smith is not neutral. He wants the Union, won't be calling a border poll and will be keeping the DUP sweet. The most Smith can offer is a day-to-day approach which ensures that extra goodies demanded by the DUP under the renewal of the confidence-and-supply deal are beneficial on a cross-community basis.

Smith's closeness to the DUP is a product of arithmetical necessity and shared anti-Corbyn sentiment, not deep political conviction. He appears not to have an ideological bone in his body. His role has been to arm-twist other politicians, not develop his own politics. Smith voted Remain but happily serves in the Cabinet of a Government committed to a no-deal Brexit if necessary. This despite the potentially profound implications of such a Brexit for the country over which he now presides.

On two of the recent controversies in Northern Ireland - same-sex marriage and abortion - Smith abstained in the recent Westminster votes. He will now have to deal with those issues. One is relatively unproblematic. Same-sex marriage will be introduced following the recent parliamentary amendment of Labour MP Conor McGinn. The DUP will accept defeat without undue fuss.

Framing abortion legislation will be much more difficult. Labour MP Stella Creasy's successful amendment gives Northern Ireland potentially the most permissive abortion regime in western Europe, in terms of time limits. None of the main political parties in the North support this and it is unclear what limits the public would desire. The DUP will surely press for a much lower abortion time limit, perhaps, ironically, supporting equalisation with the South, where a 12-week term applies. While Smith will not want to become embroiled in abortion controversies, this may be unavoidable.

The bigger question is whether the new Secretary of State can revive Stormont. Given the flow of direct rule attached to the most mistitled legislation in history, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, more people may ask: "Why bother?" Yet abandoning devolved power-sharing would signal the end of the Good Friday Agreement in meaningful form. Strand One was always the most important part of the deal, premised upon the placement of conflict within a political arena. For this reason, the likeliest course for Smith to chart will be the maintenance of inter-party talks, sometimes promising a breakthrough, sometimes not.

Amid the illusion of progress, we can look forward to another Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill at Westminster next year, when more direct rule legislation can be passed amid the setting of a new fake devolution deadline. Whether that legislation deals with the Irish language, legacy issues and conflict amnesties (without using the amnesty word) may help determine if the Assembly can be resuscitated.

Ultimately, though, only a soft-landing Brexit can smooth the path towards a revived Assembly. The prospect remains slim. Boris Johnson's Cabinet may be divided almost equally between those who voted Remain or Leave in 2016 but given that most Conservative MPs voted Remain, this represents Brexit skewing. The new Prime Minister has given himself no wriggle room regarding an October 31 departure. Remainers and soft Brexiteers can only hope that Johnson's inconsistencies resurface. This is a man who told a DUP audience of the need to bin the backstop and end EU colonialism, yet voted for Theresa May's deal six months later.

So, all the 21st Secretary of State needs to do is save the Union, soften Brexit and restore devolution. Not much, eh? Any reassuring news for Julian Smith? Well, there have been 21 such postholders in 47 years, an average tenure of little more than two years. Only Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State from 1992 to 1997, stayed the full Government term.

If Mr Smith inexplicably prefers Skipton and Ripon to Shantallow and Rathcoole, a replacement is rarely far away.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of recent books on the DUP and UUP

Belfast Telegraph