The sacking of Julian Smith as Northern Secretary by British prime minister Boris Johnson on Thursday morning was met in Ireland, North and South, by a reaction of surprise, bemusement and a degree of anger.
He was replaced by former Conservative chairman and Minister Brandon Lewis, the 48-year-old MP for Great Yarmouth.
Mr Lewis’s career has been on an upward trajectory since he was elected in 2010. He served as Minister without Portfolio from 2018 to 2019, which gave him cabinet status although not in charge of a specific department.
A Londoner he is a qualified barrister who also holds an economics degree. He also held a number of junior ministerial posts that included areas such as Brexit, security, policing, housing and immigration.
Mr Lewis visited the Border in 2018 and also met business people in Belfast to learn of their Brexit concerns. Last year he accepted that there would be checks on some goods coming from Britain to Northern Ireland if they were then destined to be transported out of the UK.
In departing office, Mr Smith said it had been “the biggest privilege” to serve the people of Northern Ireland and he was “extremely grateful” to have been given the chance to serve “this amazing part of our country”.
Mr Smith, who with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney last month signed off on the New Decade, New Approach agreement that reinstated the Northern Executive and Assembly, said the “warmth and support from people across Northern Ireland has been incredible”.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar paid warm tribute stating that Mr Smith was “one of Britain’s finest politicians of our time”.
In a tweet he wrote, “You helped to restore powersharing in Stormont, secured an agreement with us to avoid a hard border, plus marriage equality.”
Mr Coveney said that without Mr Smith’s leadership he did not believe Stormont would have been restored.
“You have been such an effective secretary of state for Northern Ireland at a time of real challenge and risk,” he said.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the dismissal was a “strategic error” in the context of the part Mr Smith played in the restoration of the Executive and Assembly and his willingness and ability to do business with all parties.
“It defies belief that after the successful restoration of powersharing following a three-year collapse, Julian Smith’s reward is a cabinet office P45,” said Mr Eastwood.
“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.”
Mr Eastwood added that Mr Johnson was displaying a “dangerous indifference” to Northern Ireland.
DUP First Minister Arlene Foster contacted Mr Smith after his dismissal to wish him well and to “thank him for getting devolution restored”.
“We may not have always agreed (we did sometimes) but his dedication to the role was incredible,” she said.
Historical Investigations Unit
Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill cited how there were suggestions that Mr Smith’s plans to press ahead with the proposed Historical Investigations Unit to investigate Troubles-relating killings, including those by British soldiers and the RUC, played a role in his dismissal.
“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 (in 2014) are very concerning for victims of the conflict and their families.”
Ms O’Neill said she was writing to the British government for an urgent meeting with the incoming Northern Secretary.
Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken said he had his differences with Mr Smith particularly over the New Decade, New Approach deal but “no one can question his dedication” as Northern Secretary.
He also praised him for his work in getting redress for the victims of historical institutional abuse.
The Alliance leader Naomi Long said she was “hugely disappointed to see a truly engaged secretary of state of Northern Ireland removed from office at a time when continuity is needed around a still fragile political agreement”.
Margaret McGuckin of victims’ group, Savia accused Mr Johnson of “doing a hatchet job on one of the nicest, kindest” Northern secretaries who had been a “God-send” to victims of historical institutional abuse.