British Direct Ruler Julian Smith has been sacked by Boris Johnson, just over six months since he took up the post. He has been replaced with Brandon Lewis, a former chair of the Conservative Party and most recently, a Security Minister in Johnson’s cabinet.
Smith’s departure comes as part of a cabinet reshuffle by Johnson who has implemented a major reshaping of his government, including departmental special advisors. It is believed his card was marked after he broke ranks with Brexit hardliners last year by warning that a crash Brexit would be “very, very bad for Northern Ireland”.
Mr Smith (pictured, right) said that “serving the people of Northern Ireland has been the biggest privilege”, and that he was grateful to have been given the chance to serve “this amazing part of our country” [sic].
Despite that statement, there was praise for Smith from both nationalists and unionists politicians. There was fulsome praise by the outgoing 26 County Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who called him “one of Britain’s finest politicians of our time”.
Smith was starting from a very low base -- it emerged today that his predecessor, Karen Bradley, once confused Derry with Kerry, which she insisted should be called ‘Londonkerry’.
The appointment has raised fears that Johnson wants to put down growing calls for Irish reunfication in the wake of Brexit. Speculation about Mr Smith’s sacking has also centred on the terms of the recent Stormont talks deal, which he helped to negotiate.
There had been Tory criticism that the talks deal to restore power-sharing failed to eliminate the possibility of prosecutions of British soldiers over war crimes in Ireland.
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill said she was seeking an urgent meeting with British officials over the change.
“Reports from London that Julian Smith was sacked as a result of commitments made to bring forward legislation to implement the legacy bodies agreed at Stormont House are very concerning for victims of the conflict and their families,” she said.
“The British government has already dragged this process out for more than five years, delaying the publication of legislation again and again. Some victims have been waiting up to five decades for truth and disclosure.”
She said it was “unacceptable” for the British government to backtrack on commitments made only weeks ago.
“The British government must honour its agreements regardless of who is in the office of British Secretary of State,” she said. “The incoming Irish government has a clear responsibility to hold the British government to these commitments and the implementation of Stormont House Agreement.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described the decision to sack Mr Smith as a “strategic error”.
“It defies belief that after the successful restoration of power-sharing following a three-year collapse, Julian Smith’s reward is a cabinet office P45,” he said.
“It tells you all you need to know about Boris Johnson’s attitude to the North that he would sack the most successful Secretary of State in a decade. He is at best indifferent.”
People Before Profit said it was “totally disingenuous” to be “lavishing praise” on Smith.
“Like his recent Tory predecessors Smith has delivered nothing for people here,” said Derry-based Councillor Shaun Harkin. “Smith, Boris Johnson and the Tories do not care about people here or ordinary people anywhere. Telling people otherwise is naive beyond belief.”
Smith’s successor is Brandon Lewis (pictured, left), a Londoner who represents Greater Yarmouth, a safe Tory constituency in the Norfolk Broads. Prior to his appointment today, Lewis held the title of ‘Minister of State for Security and Deputy for EU Exit and No Deal Preparation’. He also held ministerial roles in immigration and policing.
As Security Minister, Lewis visited the Irish border in 2018. In an interview last year, he insisted the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement should not lead to disruption in trade across the Irish Sea.
His appointment will appeal to unionists and ‘securocrats’ -- militant British officials who believe Irish nationalism can be opposed by security measures. It will raise fears of increased Crown Force oppression in the north of Ireland.
The reshuffle has been blamed on Dominic Cummings, the Rasputin-like Tory advisor behind Johnson’s ascent, as well as the ‘Vote Leave’ Brexit campaign. Cummings’s alleged ‘control freakery’ also today brought about the sudden resignation of Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, weeks before his first Budget, after Cummings insisted on axing all of Javid’s advisors.
Also sacked in Mr Johnson’s reshuffle on Thursday morning were business secretary Andrea Leadsom, housing minister Esther McVey, environment secretary Theresa Villiers, education minister Chris Skidmore, and attorney general Geoffrey Cox.