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The sacking of Smith shows Tories to take a hard line on legacy issues

Hugh O'Connell


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Changing times: Julian Smith. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Changing times: Julian Smith. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Changing times: Julian Smith. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Julian Smith's sacking after just 204 days as Northern Ireland secretary yesterday could be followed by Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney's departure in the coming weeks.

This will deliver a fresh start - as they're fond of saying in Northern Ireland - when it comes to the two figures in both governments who will be responsible for ensuring that power-sharing endures after it was finally put back together last month.

The identity of the person on the Irish Government side who will succeed Mr Coveney is still far from being determined.

Boris Johnson has appointed his ally Brandon Lewis, a former Tory party chair and security minister, to succeed Mr Smith. He has previously visited the Border and met businesses in Belfast over their concerns about Brexit.

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Tánaiste Simon Coveney. Photo: Conor McCabe

Tánaiste Simon Coveney. Photo: Conor McCabe

For the time being Mr Lewis will work with Mr Coveney who remains in his position, albeit on a caretaker basis until a new government is formed.

It is conceivable that the Fine Gael deputy leader could return to the role in the next government if his party is involved. No one in Ireland argues he has done a bad job over the last three years.

He forged a strong relationship with Mr Smith over the past eight months as they worked with the Northern Ireland parties to deliver a deal that both men announced late on a chilly January night outside Stormont. The five parties had little choice but to endorse what the two men put forward following a three-year hiatus that had infuriated voters north of the Border.

Their hand was strengthened by the DUP's diminished role in Westminster where Boris Johnson's super majority meant the unionists' confidence and supply deal with the Tories was dead. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin was keen to get back to business at Stormont and show it could govern - a task it may now also undertake in the Republic following a stunning General Election victory.

But Mr Smith's solid work was never going to save him.

His unceremonious sacking by Mr Johnson yesterday morning was a result of Conservative Party internal politics and the Tories' desire to pursue a harder line on legacy issues.

The party's general election manifesto pledged to protect UK armed forces veterans from legal action. Having trailed this on the front of the Tory-supporting 'Daily Telegraph' in the middle of the election campaign, Mr Johnson has little choice but to follow through on the promise.

But the new Stormont deal hammered out by Mr Smith proposes to press ahead with measures to deal with legacy issues, including criminal investigations and potential prosecutions of British military personnel involved in The Troubles.

In the hours leading up to Mr Smith's departure there were briefings from the PM's camp which claimed Mr Smith had not kept Downing Street informed of the process and details of the deal.

This was dismissed as "absolute crap" by Mr Smith's allies.

His departure was lamented in Dublin where Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pointedly tweeted: "In 8 months as Secretary of State, Julian you helped to restore power-sharing in Stormont, secured an agreement with us to avoid a hard Border, plus marriage equality. You are one of Britain's finest politicians of our time. Thank you."

Mr Coveney thanked Mr Smith "for your trust, friendship and courage".

The strictures of their offices prevented them from being as forthright as former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who said it was "sour grapes" because of the job he had done for Theresa May, whom he served as chief whip when she tried and failed to get Brexit done.

"I think a bad thing for a prime minister ever to have or a senior politician is to be vindictive and it doesn't serve you well, and I have to say I interpret the firing of a person who has probably been one of the best secretaries of state who in a short term of time did an outstanding job to me looks to be vindictive," he told RTÉ Radio.

Even Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald appeared concerned at the sacking of Mr Smith, saying it could be "the British state rowing back on dealing with issues of legacy".

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

It's far cry from how Sinn Féin has spoken of previous occupants of the office - most-recently the gaffe-prone Karen Bradley. Perhaps because it could yet end up working with Mr Smith's successor North and south.

Irish Independent