Sacking Julian Smith creates problems for Boris Johnson, rather than solving them

The departure of a universally respected Northern Ireland secretary will make his successor’s job much harder.

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Julian Smith has been sacked as Northern Ireland secretary. Why? That’s the question animating Stormont and Westminster this morning. Barely a month since overseeing the restoration of Northern Irish devolution after three years – an achievement that eluded both of his predecessors – the first Conservative to win widespread respect in the brief in nearly three decades became the first casualty of Boris Johnson’s first cabinet reshuffle. 

Smith’s detractors in No 10 offer two explanations. The first is that his work is done: Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive is back and in situ to bear its share of the administrative burden on Brexit. The second involves a little revisionism. Sinn Féin and the DUP’s poor general election performance left the latter denuded of meaningful influence at Westminster and shifted the onus to agree on a deal onto both. And that deal, of course, bore a strong family resemblance to the one very nearly agreed in February 2018. 

Taken together, Smith’s critics believe it to be a strong case for Belfast Twitter’s favourite minister not mattering all that much at all, and thus for sacking him. There is also the small matter of his willingness to criticise the government’s direction of travel on Brexit, as well as the inclusion of a new mechanism for the prosecution of Troubles veterans much loathed by Conservative backbenchers. Johnson’s stated commitments on both put him at odds with not only Smith, but the constituent parts of the Northern Ireland executive.

It’s for the latter reason that a new minister whose views on Brexit, and the so-called “witch-hunt” against veterans in Northern Ireland, align with Downing Street’s won’t be able to deliver Johnson’s will by dint of their mere existence. There is a reason that every agreement to establish, restore or preserve Stormont executives has included a package on legacy issues – power-sharing is unsustainable without it. A new Northern Ireland secretary cannot change that situation by fiat. Rather, they are much likelier than not to start a series of damaging fights that, without the respect enjoyed by Smith at Stormont and in Dublin, they will find difficult to mediate or resolve to Downing Street’s satisfaction.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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