Smith’s sacking is Johnson’s second chance to take the Union with Northern Ireland seriously

Julian Smith’s sacking has been met with widespread dismay on Twitter, where the Northern Ireland Secretary has been praised in many quarters for his performance during quite a short stint in the role.

It’s undoubtedly true that he was in post when Stormont managed to get back on its feet, although given that neither of his predecessors enjoyed a landslide Conservative majority and a Prime Minister who had just jettisoned the Democratic Unionists it is an open question whether his tenure caused this or merely correlated with it.

Regardless, it doesn’t look as if his dismissal has much if anything to do with his job performance. Even if it isn’t true that “everybody in govt agrees Smith did a good job” – and it shouldn’t be – the reason appears to be based on his previous opposition to Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy.

If true, it would be sadly emblematic of the Government’s entire approach to Northern Ireland that it should dismiss a Secretary of State on grounds entirely unrelated to Ulster. However today’s papers also report that the Prime Minister felt “blindsided” by aspects of the deal Smith struck over Stormont, which undercut the Government’s agenda on issues such as veterans and Brexit (as we warned at the time), although this dimension should not be over-stated.

Whatever the truth behind the motivation, the fact remains that this reshuffle represents an opportunity for Johnson to correct a long-standing bad habit of treating the Northern Irish brief as a useful repository for uninspiring loyalists, as May did, or those whom one can’t immediately dismiss but don’t want to place anywhere ‘important’, such as former Chief Whips.

This contributed towards London being comprehensively outplayed by Dublin during the first stage of the Brexit negotiations, with a hapless Theresa May ending up committed to positions based on an extremely ‘maximalist’ interpretation of the Government’s obligations under the Belfast Agreement. This was already contributing to Unionist unease even before Johnson’s decision to abandon his purportedly iron-clad commitment to avoiding an internal border in the United Kingdom.

If the Prime Minister is serious about Northern Ireland’s place in the Union – and that is, at this point, another open question – then he needs to do much more than commission a bit of blue-sky research on an implausible bridge. He needs a coherent Ulster policy, or at the very least to appoint a capable Secretary of State with the expertise and the ability to produce one.

To at least some extent, the warm words for Smith from the likes of Simon Coveney and other elements of Northern Ireland’s devocracy represent just how strong the pressures towards a version of ‘producer capture’ are on the Northern Irish brief. It isn’t unreasonable to assume that a Secretary of State who was more effective at articulating and implementing the British interest (which need neither be selfish nor strategic to be legitimate and real) would be somewhat less popular in some quarters, just as Leo Varadkar’s extremely effective pursuit of Dublin’s interests has made him something of a bête noire amongst unionists.

Combine that with perennial unionist complains about the institutional culture of the Northern Irish Office, and it is clear that any Secretary of State installed without a clear mission and strong grounding on the issues will swiftly succumb to these adverse prevailing winds – at a time when the backstop and Sinn Fein’s surge in the Republic make Ulster’s position more sensitive than it has been in a long time.

Fortunately, Johnson ought not to be without options if he does decide to take this position seriously. It’s easy to have forgotten now but last year there were reports that the Northern Irish brief was, for the first time in decades, actually hotly contested amongst the now-Prime Minister’s supporters. He also has a relatively strong bench amongst the peers, including the likes of Lords Bew and Caine, who could provide Smith’s successor with additional support.

Alternatively he could simply use the position to reward another loyalist (not that sort) with no strong interest in Northern Ireland. But to make up for that he’d have to actually build the bridge, and that isn’t likely to happen.

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