Sam McBride: A steely hand in a velvet glove, Julian Smith got things done

Julian Smith got results in Northern Ireland - and, unusually in a region where most Secretaries of State are quickly denounced by all sides, was widely popular.

Thursday, 13th February 2020, 12:07 pm
Julian Smith, here with Simon Coveney, will be remembered for this deal

Possessing a steely hand concealed by a velvet glove, his smooth demeanour belied keen political instincts which he used to lure, goad and then shove the DUP and Sinn Fein towards re-entering Stormont.

That resulted in a compromise last month which restored devolution after three years of vacuum.

Smith was lucky in succeeding the hapless Karen Bradley, someone transparently incapable of performing what had always been a demanding, if widely undesirable, cabinet role but one which by then was among the most complex in the face of Brexit, the absence of devolution, the DUP propping up the government and the ongoing security threat from dissident republicans.

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Immediately, Smith made an impact where Bradley had prevaricated. He ordered a rapid review of why the Queen’s portrait had been removed from the NIO’s Belfast headquarters (allegedly because it offended an official) and restored the Queen’s image.

He then gave a commitment to victims of historical institutional abuse that he would ensure Westminster passed the legislation necessary to compensate them in the absence of Stormont.

Crucially, after Bradley’s repeated delays on the issue had needlessly created a crisis for her, he followed through on that pledge and for that reason the victims yesterday were among those who spoke most fondly about him.

Some unionists came to distrust him, especially around his late decision to include structures to investigate elements of the Troubles into the deal, something the Ulster Unionist Doug Beattie said he had been assured would not happen.

Some unionists – although the DUP appeared relaxed about the issue – were also critical of the role the Irish government was given in the talks which were about the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, believing that an important principle had been conceded, something which will make it much harder to exclude any future southern Sinn Féin ministers from future Stormont talks.

The deal which Smith brokered contains many contradictions and areas which have not actually been resolved - not least in that it makes funding commitments of billions of pounds without the finance to pay for them.

But by going now, he will – like a talented artist cut short in the prime of life – largely be remembered in Northern Ireland for success.