New Secretary of State Julian Smith will meet the Northern Ireland parties for the first time tomorrow, with the issues of power-sharing talks and the Brexit backstop likely to be at the top of the agenda.
The former government chief whip and Theresa May loyalist, originally a strong EU remainer, has been retained and promoted by new Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Unionist parties of all shades will take comfort from Mr Johnson’s tough talk on scrapping the Brexit backstop, which they feared would undermine the Union.
DUP chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has worked closely with Mr Smith through their parties’ mutual confidence and supply agreement, to ensure government business has been approved by the House of Commons.
“But there have also been many occasions when we have been on opposite sides of the argument as well,” said Sir Jeffrey.
“I have found Julian a very professional politician, a very good communicator but also someone who is his own man and will come to his own conclusions issue by issue.”
...he has the skills and abilities to help us restore the AssemblySir Jeffrey Donaldson MP
He confirmed that his party wants to see changes to the backstop within the proposed Brexit deal.
“We are very clear that our strong preference is for the UK to leave at the end of October with a deal that works for the UK as a whole including Northern Ireland,” he said.
“And that means addressing not only our concerns but concerns right across the Commons about the backstop.”
He believes that Brussels and Dublin will renegotiate the backstop even though they are “still playing hard ball”. But if they don’t, he poses them the question: “Do you really want a no-deal outcome here?”
A time-limited backstop is one option the DUP would consider, he said.
He noted the government itself formally abstained on votes to liberalise NI laws on abortion and same-sex marriage, even though MPs, including Mr Smith, voted the amendments through.
Asked if that puts him at odds with core DUP policies, Mr Donaldson replied: “Julian Smith is his own man. He will treat all of the parties fairly and impartially. But at the end of the day he has the skills and abilities to help us restore the Assembly.”
But UUP leader Robin Swann said Mr Smith must waste no time in ending the “indulgence” of Sinn Fein and the DUP to see power-sharing restored.
He said: “I urge Julian Smith not to let the DUP-Conservative confidence and supply agreement to influence his decision making and neither should he allow Sinn Fein to hold democracy to ransom by allowing their self-imposed boycott of the institutions to cause further damage to local services. He needs to engage with all Northern Ireland’s main political parties as a matter of urgency.”
Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator Conor Murphy said a change in secretary of state will end in failure if it is not accompanied by a change in government policy.
“Unfortunately, Julian Smith doesn’t exactly inspire confidence given that his only interest in the north to date seems to have been to attend the DUP conference,” he said.
“Successive British administrations have refused to honour agreements or to resolve the issues of the past while imposing austerity and Brexit against the wishes and best interests of the people.”
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said Mr Smith cannot be a “yes man” for a single party.
“We note the enthusiasm with which Julian Smith was welcomed by the DUP at Westminster today and the relationship he has undoubtedly formed with them given his previous role as chief whip,” she said.
“That poses an immediate challenge to the new secretary of state to demonstrate that he is not beholden to one party as efforts to restore inclusive power-sharing government continue.”
Kirsty McManus, national director of the Institute of Directors NI, said: “Given our unique circumstances in Northern Ireland in terms of our vulnerability to the impact of a no-deal Brexit, we will seek an early meeting with Julian as we work to convey the concerns of local business leaders on this and other key issues.”
Mr Smith was elected MP for Skipton & Ripon in 2010. Since joining Parliament, he has focused on rural issues, education, business and international development.
He joined the government whip’s office in 2015 and was appointed chief whip in 2017. Before politics, he set up his own international head-hunting firm in 1999. He grew up in Scotland and attended a comprehensive before receiving a bursary to a Somerset sixth form school, later reading History and English at the University of Birmingham.