Smith needs to preside over root and branch change at the NIO

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial
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The new prime minister has surprised many pundits by radically restructuring government.

Boris Johnson could easily have decided that his position in power was precarious, given the divisions within his Conservative Party, and chosen only to modestly reform the ministerial make-up. He has not done that, and has instead embarked on a huge shake-up.

It suggests that Mr Johnson means it when he talks tough to the European Union, and it implies that he will not accept a mere tinkering with the Withdrawal Agreement, and its backstop which inflicts so much damage on the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.

Let us hope that such a change in approach is coming, but nowhere is radical reform needed than in the Northern Ireland Office. Problems at the NIO, and its refusal ever to contradict Irish government ministers, or to counter the sense of joint stewardship of Stormont matters with Simon Coveney, pre-date Karen Bradley’s tenure as secretary of state. However, her blunder about the record of the security forces, when she said that they never committed wrongdoing, instead of saying they almost never did, led to a fear that she would over compensate in favour of victims of the state.

This must not happen, particularly given that the Legacy Bill needs root and branch reform at minimum, and perhaps scrapping altogether, to ensure that legacy processes do not turn against the state. Detailed scrutiny of the legislation only seems to highlight fresh horrors in that direction.

Most of all, however, the new secretary of state needs to make clear that the Sinn Fein veto on devolved government here, until it gets its Irish language act, is at an end.

It is far from clear that Julian Smith will have the inclination or knowledge to bring about such a sea change in attitude at the NI, and if so the discretion to implement it, or that Boris Johnson would allow such. Now it is time to watch closely for indications of such, or presumably the DUP will reassess its support for the government.