Northern Ireland news

Julian Smith hailed as 'most successful secretary of state in a decade'

Former secretary of state Julian Smith during a visit to the Ballymena Showgrounds last year. File picture by Colm Lenaghan, Pacemaker

JULIAN Smith's sacking as secretary of state just a month after he helped broker the return of Stormont has been met with dismay from nationalists, unionists and the Irish government.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar praised the Tory MP as "one of Britain’s finest politicians of our time" for helping to restore a power-sharing government, his work on Brexit and his support for the extension of same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland.

He was also praised by the survivors of institutional abuse for helping secure long-awaited legislation to give victims compensation.

The 48-year-old was sacked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in yesterday's cabinet reshuffle after less than eight months in the post.

It is understood the sacking came amid disquiet that the Remain-backing MP had broken ranks in October to warn that a no-deal Brexit would be "very, very bad" for Northern Ireland.

There was also speculation that Mr Johnson is unhappy at commitments in the New Decade, New Approach agreement to bring forward proposals on the legacy of the Troubles within 100 days. Some Tory MPs believe the commitment will undermine what they see as the need to end prosecutions of British soldiers who served during the conflict.

Mr Smith yesterday drew praise from across the political spectrum, including DUP leader Arlene Foster and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.

Mr Eastwood said the sacking "defies belief" and showed Mr Johnson's "indifference" to Northern Ireland.

He said while he had political differences with Mr Smith, the Tory MP was the "most successful Secretary of State in a decade".

"I found him to be a Secretary of State genuinely committed to acting in the interests of devolution rather than imposing a cabinet agenda on this place," he said.

Mrs Foster said she spoke to Mr Smith earlier yesterday to thank him for his work in the restoration of power-sharing.

"We may not have always agreed (we did sometimes) but his dedication to the role was incredible," she tweeted.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said she was "hugely disappointed to see a truly engaged SoS NI (secretary of state) removed from office at a time when continuity is needed around a still fragile political agreement".

Former secretary of state, Labour peer Lord Peter Hain, said: "Given Julian Smith rescued Northern Ireland from the governmental mess his predecessors since 2010 had mostly helped create, his sacking is inexplicable and ominous."

Mr Smith was appointed in July 2019 and lasted 204 days in the role. He was widely praised for engaging with the public and frequently posted images of his trips around the north.

"Serving the people of Northern Ireland has been the biggest privilege," he tweeted.

"I am extremely grateful to Boris Johnson for giving me the chance to serve this amazing part of our country. The warmth & support from people across NI has been incredible. Thank you so much."

Tánaiste Simon Coveney, who worked closely with Mr Smith, said he did not think there would be a government at Stormont without Mr Smith's leadership and praised the MP's "trust, friendship and courage".

Margaret McGuckin, from Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (Savia), said he was the best secretary of state she had worked with in her 11 years as a campaigner.

"I remember meeting him for the first time and thinking here was someone who wasn't like any of his predecessors," she said.

"I am heartbroken. He was one of the nicest gentlemen."

Ms McGuckin, who jokingly referred to Mr Smith as Mr Darcy - the hero in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - said she was struck by his genuine interest in the plight of victims.

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