Sacking of Northern Ireland secretary branded a ‘WTF moment’ by Julian Smith’s allies and colleagues

PUBLISHED: 11:54 13 February 2020 | UPDATED: 11:54 13 February 2020

Arlene Foster of the DUP (front right), deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill (front left) of Sinn Fein, sit around the table with Ireland's deputy premier, Tanaiste, Simon Coveney (back left), Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar (back centre left), Prime Minister, Boris Johnson (back centre right), and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith (back right) in the Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA.

Arlene Foster of the DUP (front right), deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill (front left) of Sinn Fein, sit around the table with Ireland's deputy premier, Tanaiste, Simon Coveney (back left), Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar (back centre left), Prime Minister, Boris Johnson (back centre right), and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith (back right) in the Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA.

PA Wire/PA Images

The sacking of Julian Smith, the Northern Ireland secretary, has been branded a ‘WTF moment’ by those close to the politician.

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The move comes despite the former chief whip delivering a power-sharing deal in the fragile region, which saw the Northern Ireland Assembly restored after three years of deadlock.

The decision came as Boris Johnson carried out a reshuffle of his top team, axing a number of prominent politicians including Geoffrey Cox, Andrea Leadsom and Theresa Villiers.

Downing Street was reported to have felt left out of the loop over the terms of the deal Smith was negotiating last month, which eventually led to the Assembly functioning again after a three-year suspension.

There are concerns in Tory circles that the agreement includes an investigation into alleged crimes by British soldiers during the Troubles.

But those close to Smith insisted that Number 10 and the prime minister had been kept fully informed about the terms of the Stormont arrangement.

"There was a write-round of cabinet ministers," a source told the PA News Agency, pointing out that Smith travelled back from Belfast to personally brief Johnson.

There had been a series of memos sent back and forth between Smith's team and Number 10 and it was "absolute crap" to suggest they had been blindsided.

The reaction in Northern Ireland to the news had been "WTF", the source added.

First minister Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, praised the outgoing secretary of state for his "incredible" dedication.

"Spoke with Julian Smith a short time ago to thank him for his help in getting devolution restored," she tweeted.

"We may not have always agreed (we did sometimes) but his dedication to the role was incredible. Best wishes to him and his family. Always welcome in Fermanagh."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood had harsh words for the PM, calling the sacking a "strategic error" by the Conservative Party leader.

Thanking Smith for his work since being appointed in July, he said: "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.

"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."

Marty Adams, from historical abuse victims' campaign group Survivors Together, drew parallels with Mo Mowlam, the former Labour Northern Ireland secretary who was demoted by Tony Blair only six months after delivering the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Adams called for Johnson to "see sense" and reappoint Smith to the role.

"We have not seen an excellent secretary of state that knows the needs and wants from both sides of the divide since Mo Mowlam," he said.

"We have no doubt if he can unite victims of historical abuse and deliver in the manner that he did, he can solve a lot of issues in this country.

"Stormont faces a rocky road ahead and to sack the architect of the New Deal, New Decade would be disastrous."

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