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Suzanne Breen

Julian Smith earned respect of all shades of political opinion in Northern Ireland

Suzanne Breen


Julian Smith (far right) with Boris Johnson, Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster at Stormont last month

Julian Smith (far right) with Boris Johnson, Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster at Stormont last month

AFP via Getty Images

Julian Smith (far right) with Boris Johnson, Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster at Stormont last month

Days before the deal was reached to restore power-sharing at Stormont, Julian Smith vented his frustration at the lack of progress paralysing the negotiations.

"We've been f***ing about at this far too long," he told the politicians in front of him.

Dynamic, blunt, yet sensitive when he had to be, the outgoing secretary of state impressed all shades of political opinion here, and that's no mean feat. The parties may not have agreed with everything he said, but they all respected him.

He didn't have a hard act to follow. The hapless Karen Bradley was unanimously regarded as a disaster.

Smith learnt from her mistakes. He employed two twenty-something special advisers, Ross Easton and Lilah Howson-Smith.

Whereas Bradley dealt with the media from a defensive position, team Smith adopted a positive and proactive approach from the get-go.

If he was trying to get hold of a politician, he would stun civil servants by putting on his coat and setting off to find them, rather than waiting for officials to make the phone calls. On other occasions, he would head down for lunch to the canteen in Parliament Buildings where MLAs and journalists ate, which was almost unheard of for a secretary of state.

He first met former Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney at a very formal event in Hillsborough Castle surrounded by officials from both sides.

As business concluded, he turned to Coveney and asked "Will we go to the pub?" and they sauntered down to the Hillside in the village.

From that ice-breaking moment, the two men built a strong relationship which paved the way for New Decade, New Approach.

Smith may have lacked ministerial experience when he came here, but his time as Commons chief whip meant he possessed the crucial skill of building relationships and deals.

Managing 300-plus MPs helped him handle Northern Ireland's recalcitrant politicians.

Smith was a pragmatist, not an ideologue. He was no DUP stooge despite that party's confidence-and-supply agreement with the Tories being in place when he was appointed last July.

He had been instrumental in helping abortion and same-sex marriage amendments through the House of Commons last summer.

Smith spent more time in Northern Ireland than many of his predecessors. His wife and daughter would stay with him in the flat in Hillsborough Castle. Weekends included visiting the Clip 'n Climb adventure centre in Dundonald.

Government sources dismiss speculation that plans in New Decade, New Approach to address legacy within the next 100 days - unpopular with many Tories - sealed Smith's fate.

Instead, they point to a Brexit-related tweet which was interpreted as a put-down of Dominic Cummings in October.

Aside from restoring devolution, Smith will be remembered most for his work in helping victims of historical institutional abuse. He fast-tracked legislation to compensate them and held a reception for them in Hillsborough Castle last month. Victim Margaret McGuckin said: "I never met anybody like him. My experience means a lack of trust for the authorities is inbred in me. We were let down by so many other officials and secretaries of state.

"Within minutes of meeting Julian Smith, I knew he was a good one. You always feel these Government people are looking down on you. With him, I felt we were on the same level, or even that he looked up to us a bit.

"I called him Mr Darcy because he reminded me of that character in the Bridget Jones movies.

"He was warm, sincere and a wee bit shy. Just a perfect gentleman."

New Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has big boots to fill.

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