Finn McRedmond: Julian Smith pays price for dissent
Johnson and Cummings are prioritising elimination of discord from their cabinet
The cynical sacking of Julian Smith fits into a broader narrative of callous dismissal of the concerns raised by Ireland over the operation of the Border and economy after Brexit. Photograph: Andy Rain
Boris Johnson has long been a fan of flabby tokenism. Recently he’s been mulling over plans to build a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland – a gesture to indicate his interest in protecting the union against the existential threat of Brexit.
But while he’s been preoccupied with the idea of building physical bridges, he’s revealed himself as someone more than happy to burn metaphorical ones.
In Thursday’s cabinet reshuffle he and Dominic Cummings – his chief puppeteer (formally known as an “adviser”) sacked the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith.
Smith triumphed where his two predecessors failed. He has garnered the respect of politicians and officials across the island
There were few in Westminster who weren’t expecting the decision – rumours had been circulating the corridors of parliament for the days in the lead-up – yet the move has still been greeted with raised eyebrows throughout the Conservative Party, and with dismay by officials and politicians both sides of the Border in Ireland.
Smith – along with Simon Coveney – oversaw the restoration of powersharing in the North after three years of stagnation. He triumphed where his two predecessors failed. And, in doing so, he has garnered the respect of politicians and officials across the entire island.
He showed himself a minister fully invested in his brief – dedicated to the cause of restoring stability to Northern Ireland, as it grew increasingly exposed to Johnson’s reckless pursuit of Brexit at all costs.
And Smith, thankfully, stood in sharp relief to his predecessor Karen Bradley – who revealed when she took up the post that she “didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues” in the North, including “things like . . . people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa”.
So naturally the reward for Smith’s service was a sacking. Because as far as Johnson and Cummings are concerned, the first order of business in running a country is filtering out all dissent from cabinet.
That Smith warned MPs back in October – against Johnson’s wishes – of the impact a no-deal Brexit might have on Northern Ireland entirely eclipsed his reputation as the most successful Northern Ireland secretary in decades.
Johnson too was unhappy that the powersharing deal included measures on the prosecution of Troubles veterans.
The firing of Smith, then, reveals exactly what kind of government Johnson is captaining: one that has no capacity for disagreement; full of ministers prepared to carry out Johnson’s bidding no matter the consequences; and crucially – one that won’t talk back.
The priority for Johnson remains no-questions-asked governance. And if that requires sacking the competent Northern Ireland minister, then so be it
No matter how febrile the Border question remains, and no matter the fate of Northern Ireland – they will now have to become acquainted with the fourth Northern Ireland secretary in four years – it is all of secondary concern to Johnson. His calculation, it seems, is that he can’t pursue the Brexit he wants while someone in his government is prepared to raise questions.
There is now little ambiguity around the government’s attitude towards the Ireland question. Though Johnson has been known to let the mask slip a little – famously wondering why “Varadkar isn’t called Murphy like the rest of them” – it seemed for a short while that Anglo-Irish relations were beginning to improve after three years of toxicity heralded by Brexit.
When Johnson and Varadkar met in the Wirral last October – resolving what seemed to be a near-intractable dispute over provisions for the Irish Border, and paving the way for a politically acceptable Brexit deal to those on both sides of the Irish sea – it seemed relations had reached a turning point. But even that cautious optimism seems nothing more than a fever dream now.
And this attitude – laden with indifference and disdain – has been refracted through the right-wing press too, as Charles Moore in the Telegraph recently lamented that the Irish peace process was “hailed too uncritically” before offensively asserting that “Martin McGuinness was better rewarded because he had been a murderer than he would have been had he never killed anyone.”
Meanwhile, Brendan O’Neill attributed the result of the Irish election in the Spectator to a “searing indictment of the Varadkar approach”, before enumerating his failings as a “patsy of the EU” with “no sense of shame” in “exaggerating” the impact “Brexit would have on the Border in Ireland.”
The cynical sacking of Smith – dumped for reasons of domestic expediency – fits neatly into a broader narrative of callous dismissal of the concerns raised by Ireland over the operation of the Border and economy after Brexit.
Not only does it reveal how Johnson intends to run the country; but it resurfaces long-held questions over how much weight he really places on protecting a fragile powersharing settlement; and how much sleep he’s prepared to lose over preserving a delicate peace in the North.
Because the priority for Johnson remains no-questions-asked governance. And if that requires sacking the competent Northern Ireland minister, then so be it. At the end of the day, the North, the Border, and the concerns of the Republic aren’t going to help him run a tight ship in cabinet.