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19 February 2020

Julian Smith’s Diary: The day I was sacked from the cabinet, and helping Northern Ireland escape its past

Northern Ireland has a bright future, but it needs an inclusive, responsive vision for the Union that offers real benefits, as well as some careful infrastructure investment.

By Julian Smith

I was glad of the huge bowls of crisps provided at a reception hosted in parliament by Amnesty International (in partnership with Love Equality and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT+ Rights) to celebrate Northern Ireland’s first same-sex marriage on 11 February. I had promised ceremonies would start by Valentine’s Day – and we delivered. Six months after a free vote on this and other social issues during the passage of the Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions Act 2019, the people of Northern Ireland are being granted the same rights as the rest of the UK.

In the dying days of the Theresa May government, Westminster backbenchers across the political spectrum gave up waiting for Stormont to get going and enacted fundamental change for social rights in Northern Ireland. The abortion provision from that act (abortion was previously denied to Northern Irish women and girls even in the case of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality) will be even more contentious when it is put into practice at the end of March. But however it is enacted, it is vital that we ensure women and girls in Northern Ireland have broadly the same reproductive rights as elsewhere in the UK.

Change will impact many women and girls – such as Sarah Ewart, who, after she was told her baby would not survive outside the womb, took a miserable journey to England to end a much-wanted pregnancy in 2013 because of the lack of provision in Northern Ireland. Her description of the long, traumatic journey shows what a difference a new system will make to the lives of women and girls.

Challenges of the modern Union

Social reform in Northern Ireland highlighted to me the challenges that modern unionism will face in the coming years. Our vision of the Union in Northern Ireland has to be inclusive and responsive, and must consciously build on the Good Friday Agreement.

The arrival once again of an MP from Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party in Westminster, following an impressive surge in the European elections, is a reminder of the large number of voters not aligned to either unionism or nationalism, whose support for the Union we will continue to rely on. No amount of “Rule Britannia” is likely to persuade them – however much my colleagues and I might wish it.

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As secretary of state for Northern Ireland – a position I held until 13 February – I made it my mission to meet the community at both ends of the political spectrum, as well as the inspiring young people growing up with no direct memory of the Troubles.

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Sectarianism is not the only force in Northern Irish politics. Young, non-aligned voters want to see the material benefits of the Union today. We urgently need to rise to the challenge.

Investment done well

Of course, like all well behaved former cabinet ministers, I would never express scepticism about visionary ideas such as the proposed bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Underlying it is a commitment to infrastructure and innovation outside of London and the south of England that should be encouraged.

However, the priority now must be decisive and cost-effective intervention in Northern Ireland’s roads, technology and, less glamorously, the country’s failing sewage system. There is much to capitalise on: recent successes in cyber-technology and film; a strong tourism sector; and big opportunities in building low-emission buses.

I once met a man in my local pub in Hillsborough who was so keen on the original backstop that he followed me into the loo to tell me what great economic opportunities he thought it held for Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson’s new protocol seizes many of these opportunities: Northern Ireland will have unique economic benefits that stem from facing both the EU and UK. 

When it comes to UK investment, we saw from Northern Ireland’s Renewable Heat Incentive scandal – or “cash for ash” – the risks of no-strings-attached money. We should be serious and muscular in our interventions, applying the same tests we propose to apply to HS2 and other regional infrastructure projects while investing properly. Millions of pounds of responsibility-free funding has to be a thing of the past.

Friends new and old

This week felt not only like a moment of change for me personally – as I took to the gym and had a proper sleep – but for Northern Ireland, as it enters a post-Brexit transition phase and prepares for a new government in the Republic.

In a coalition that includes either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael there will be a fantastic opportunity to work with politicians wholly committed to the Good Friday Agreement and to helping the UK deliver a practical deal with the EU. Both parties contain friends of the UK. Our relationships with Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Paschal Donohoe of Fine Gael, the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and the Irish-born EU commissioner Phil Hogan should be carefully cultivated.

Northern Ireland will continue to be at the centre of many political debates in the coming months. How we engage with them will determine whether UK leaders will have a hand in the fate of the Union for years to come.

Children say the funniest things

I was brought up short at a school visit in my constituency in North Yorkshire, the day after I was sacked. As always with school Q&As, the kids nailed it with their questions. When one child asked if I knew Boris Johnson and I said yes, they replied: “Wow. When did you last meet him?”

“Yesterday,” I said. 

“Really?! How was it?”

“Er…” I stalled. “Great. It was just great.”

Cue several teachers crouched on a long gym bench, rocking with laughter.

Julian Smith is the Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon

[See also: Letter of the week: Lessons from Ireland]

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This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics