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Boris Johnson's sacking of Julian Smith is a very bad sign

Evidence, if it was needed, of Boris Johnson's lack of interest in Northern Ireland was provided yesterday by his perverse decision to sack Julian Smith.

While Mr Smith served as secretary of state for a mere 204 days - the second shortest tenure in what is a notoriously challenging post - he undoubtedly made his mark.

Not only did he manage to get the devolved institutions restored following a three year hiatus but he also made progress on a number of key issues, including compensation payments for victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse, who were deeply dismayed by yesterday's move.

It is rare for an outgoing secretary of state to receive warm praise from across the divide. Arlene Foster thanked Mr Smith for his 'incredible' dedication while Colum Eastwood described the sacking of the 'most successful secretary of state for a decade' as a 'strategic error' by the prime minister.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was even more effusive, hailing Mr Smith as 'one of Britain's finest politicians of our time', while

Mary Lou McDonald expressed concern, saying Mr Smith had made commitments on legacy and feared the British government would now row back on this issue.

After a succession of ineffectual and unmemorable postholders, it is not entirely clear why Mr Johnson has fired someone who proved himself highly capable and engaged, delivering where others had failed.

There are reports that Downing Street felt left out of the loop over the terms of the deal negotiated by Mr Smith, particularly in relation to investigations of alleged crimes by British soldiers. His supporters insist he kept Number 10 fully informed.

It has also been suggested that the Remain MP annoyed the prime minister by warning last year that a no deal Brexit would be 'very, very bad for Northern Ireland.'

Jettisoning competent and serious-minded figures who refuse to slavishly tell the leader what he wants to hear is straight out of Donald Trump's playbook.

Mr Johnson's axing of Julian Smith makes no sense in terms of its timing, while the Stormont administration is still bedding in. Furthermore, the New Decade, New Approach deal contains a commitment to bring forward legislation on legacy within 100 days.

The fact that the prime minster has removed a trusted secretary of state before this sensitive issue is steered through Westminster is a very bad sign indeed.

We must hope that Brandon Lewis takes note of the approach taken by his predecessor.

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