One of Smith’s first tasks is to show he will be an honest broker in the North
New Northern Secretary had job to ensure confidence and supply arrangement between Tories and the DUP did not break down
New Northern Secretary Julian Smith: he is described by those who know him as someone of intellect and capability. Photograph: Getty Images
The new resident of Hillsborough Castle did not “exactly inspire confidence given that his only interest in the North to date seems to have been to attend the DUP conference”, said the Newry and Armagh representative.
Mr Smith came to the DUP gathering in 2017 shortly after his appointment as Tory chief whip by former prime minister Theresa May, as she was seeking to keep the DUP on side.
Mr Murphy is correct in that the DUP knows Mr Smith and Mr Smith knows the DUP. Back then his job was to ensure that the confidence and supply arrangement between the Conservatives and the DUP, whereby Arlene Foster’s 10 MPs continued to keep the Tories in precarious power, didn’t break down. “So there was fairly constant engagement,” to quote one DUP source.
In that he was successful as the DUP kept its side of the bargain in return for £1 billion of largesse. He failed, however, on that other big job May gave him – to persuade the DUP to support her withdrawal agreement, together with its backstop, to get the UK out of the EU.
His predecessor as chief whip was Gavin Williamson, who went on to be defence secretary – a post from which he was sacked before being rehabilitated by Boris Johnson in Wednesday’s British cabinet reshuffle.
Mr Smith is more personable, a border collie to Mr Williamson’s rottweiler, but he is still someone who can get some things done. He will not be short of challenges in Stormont.
The Northern executive and assembly must be restored, Brexit handled, dissidents combatted, along with sorting problems over compensation for Troubles victims and those hurt as children by abuse in institutions.
His past explains the immediate suspicions of Sinn Féin and the SDLP that Mr Smith will be in hock to the DUP.
Mr Smith is described by those who know him as someone of intellect and capability, a workaholic, though one with the personality to work a room when the need requires.
It is just as well because relationships will have to be built with the Irish Government, particularly Tánaiste Simon Coveney, and with politicians from the five parties engaged in the continuing negotiations to bring back devolution.
The Northern politicians and Mr Coveney will have some measure of the man by lunchtime on Friday after they meet him at Stormont House as he makes his first visit to Belfast as Northern Secretary.
One of Mr Smith’s first tasks will be to demonstrate to them that he is an honest broker while not doing anything to upset the confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP.
The fact that he was a Remainer in the Brexit referendum may help to ease the way with Mr Coveney, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance. Nevertheless, Mr Smith signed up to Boris Johnson’s Brexit guarantees.
That will not help with Dublin, or the three parties mentioned; but it will not help either with most Northern business people or farmers who are terrified of a crash-out Brexit. Providing reassurance here will be quite a test.
Mr Smith, who is 47 and married, was born in Stirling, Scotland. After leaving school he coached squash for a while in Perpignan in France, before taking a degree in English and history at Birmingham University. He set up a successful recruitment agency in 1999, and was elected for Skipton and Ripon in 2010, where he has a comfortable majority of about 20,000.
Up to now Mr Smith has made few headlines, though he called for the Guardian to be prosecuted over its decision to publish leaks from the American whistleblower Edward Snowden.
There is a mildly amusing clip of him being doorstepped by a BBC reporter in his Ripon and Skipton constituency in Yorkshire 12 months ago about a pairing row which he mishandled.
The reporter politely wants to know was it a resigning matter, and had he done anything wrong. Mr Smith even more politely and noncommittally comments about how bad the weather was and how normally it was much better in July, and how it was lovely to see the reporter in Skipton and Ripon. But concrete answer was there none.
Belfast-based journalists have bridled at his unfortunate gaffe-disposed predecessor Karen Bradley evasions, but they will now hope Mr Smith masters his brief and has the confidence to make his opinions known.