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Why was Julian Smith sacked?

Boris Johnson is greeted by the first and deputy first ministers Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill and Secretary of State Julian Smith. Picture by Hugh Russell

Julian Smith was unceremoniously dumped as Northern Ireland secretary today, but why? 

Mr Smith's departure came just weeks after brokering the deal which restored the powersharing administration in Stormont.

Downing Street reportedly felt left out of the loop over the terms of the deal Mr Smith was negotiating last month, which eventually led to the Assembly functioning again after a three-year suspension.

There are concerns in Tory circles that the agreement includes an investigation into alleged crimes by British soldiers during the Troubles.

But those close to Mr Smith insisted that Number 10 and the Prime Minister had been kept fully informed about the terms of the Stormont arrangement.

"There was a write-round of Cabinet ministers," a source said, pointing out that Mr Smith travelled back from Belfast on January 6 to personally brief Mr Johnson.

There had been a series of memos sent back and forth between Mr Smith's team and Number 10 and it was "absolute crap" to suggest they had been blindsided.

The reaction in Northern Ireland to the news had been "WTF", the source added.

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Mr Smith was "one of Britain's finest politicians of our time".

Claire Simpson: Westminster finally did something right by passing law for victims of abuse

Mr Smith was also credited for his role in helping to push through legislation to provide compensation to historical abuse victims.

Allies of Mr Smith told the PA news agency they were shocked at the decision to dismiss him from the Cabinet.

BBC political reporter Jane McCormack, said: "This will be a hugely unpopular decision in both Belfast and Dublin, and will leave some wondering why the prime minister would sack a secretary of state who actually managed to do his job - getting devolution restored." 

First Minister Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, praised the outgoing secretary of state for his "incredible" dedication.

"Spoke with Julian Smith a short time ago to thank him for his help in getting devolution restored," she tweeted.

"We may not have always agreed (we did sometimes) but his dedication to the role was incredible. Best wishes to him and his family. Always welcome in Fermanagh."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood had harsh words for the PM, calling the sacking a "strategic error" by the Conservative Party leader.

Thanking Mr Smith for his work since being appointed in July, he said: "It defies belief that, after the successful restoration of power-sharing following a three-year collapse, Julian Smith's reward is a Cabinet Office P45.

"It tells you all you need to know about Boris Johnson's attitude to the north that he would sack the most successful secretary of state in a decade. He is at best indifferent."

Marty Adams, from historical abuse victims' campaign group Survivors Together, drew parallels with Mo Mowlam, the former Labour Northern Ireland secretary who was demoted by Tony Blair only six months after delivering the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Mr Adams called for Mr Johnson to "see sense" and reappoint Mr Smith to the role.

"We have not seen an excellent secretary of state that knows the needs and wants from both sides of the divide since Mo Mowlam," he said.

"We have no doubt if he can unite victims of historical abuse and deliver in the manner that he did, he can solve a lot of issues in this country.

"Stormont faces a rocky road ahead and to sack the architect of the New Deal, New Decade would be disastrous."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith, with the new Northern Ireland Executive at Stormont House in Belfast.

A Number 10 source said: "The Prime Minister wants this reshuffle to set the foundations for government now and in the future.

"He wants to promote a generation of talent that will be promoted further in the coming years."

Simon Coveney and Julian Smith unveil the New Decade New Approach agreement. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald has said the party wants to meet with whoever replaces Julian Smith as Northern Ireland secretary "urgently".

Speaking in Dublin on Thursday, she said: "Obviously for us, whoever the Secretary of State is, we will deal with them.

"It does help if you have some level of continuity in terms of the person you are dealing with.

"We had very intensive contact with Julian Smith in the re-establishment of the powersharing government and there are very many outstanding issues, not least on the issue of legacy where the British system has dragged its feet.

"We had commitments from Julian Smith that he would move fairly swiftly on these matters.

"I am concerned at the sacking of Julian Smith but that this is the British State rowing back on dealing with issues of legacy. Families who have suffered and have suffered still and in many cases have waited for decades for answers.

"We wait to see who Julian Smith's replacement is and we wish to meet with them as a matter of urgency."

Other high profile scalps were Andrea Leadsom who was sacked as business secretary and Theresa Villiers who lost her job as environment secretary.

Other senior ministers axed by Boris Johnson included Geoffrey Cox from his post as attorney general and Esther McVey as housing minister.

The most junior ministerial rank - parliamentary under-secretary of state level - is likely to have a 50-50 gender split after the reshuffle.

By the summer, Mr Johnson also aims to ensure that at least 60% of ministerial aides - the parliamentary private secretaries - will be women, up from 18% at present.

 Prime Minister Boris Johnson arriving in Downing Street. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

In a sign that male ministers could pay the price, Chris Skidmore indicated he had left his post as universities minister to have "more time to spend" with his child.

George Freeman said he was "on my bike" after losing his transport job.

But at least one female minister also lost out, with Nus Ghani joining Mr Freeman in departing the Department for Transport.

Mr Johnson's senior aide Dominic Cummings had reportedly been seeking a wider cull of ministers and a shake-up of Whitehall departments but Number 10 insiders believe a more "conventional" reshuffle will be carried out by the Prime Minister.

 

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