Boris Johnson’s Cabinet reshuffle last week was dominated by former Chancellor Sajid Javid dramatically resigning. But the sacking of the Northern Ireland secretary, Julian Smith, received little attention. Stephen Farry, the Alliance MP for North Down, suggested to the BBC that Mr Smith may have clashed with the Prime Minister on subjects including Brexit, especially after the region had power sharing restored.
One senior official in Northern Ireland said Mr Smith’s sacking was more about “Tory party internal politics than the interests of Northern Ireland”.
Dominic Lawson at the Sunday Times claimed this illustrated the government is drifting away from Northern Ireland in the new post-Brexit era, particularly after Sinn Fein’s success in the Irish election showed there is growing support for a party that backs cross-border plebiscites for a united Ireland.
He added this could be beneficial for the Conservative government as the party has ben vocal about how much the region costs Westminster.
Mr Lawson wrote in the Sunday Times: “The resignation of the chancellor of the exchequer has had a purely coincidental benefit for the prime minister: his simultaneous sacking of the Northern Ireland secretary, Julian Smith, has evaded almost all attention.
“But not in the province itself. The Democratic Unionist Party declared itself furious: “If effectiveness was the measurement then he would still be in place. He had the measure of Dublin and all the Northern Irish parties.”
“It hardly helped the (never exactly sunny) mood of the dominant unionist party of the north that a few days earlier Sinn Fein, the former political arm of the terrorist IRA, had taken the most first-choice votes in the Irish elections.
“Its candidates even outpolled the leaders of the two traditional parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin, in their own constituencies.
“This was an astounding result, and since (unlike the two parties that had ruled Ireland since independence) Sinn Fein actively campaigns for cross-border plebiscites for a united Ireland, it is unsurprising the unionists are even more than usually spooked.”
Mr Lawson added that the Tory government has been hinting at its approval of a united Ireland for many years.
He said: “On one occasion, a Tory secretary of state for the province blurted out the truth to a newspaper — though not in this country.
“In April 1993 Sir Patrick Mayhew gave a remarkable interview to Die Zeit, in which he told the German paper: “The province costs £3bn a year. £3bn for a million and a half people! For us there is no strategic or economic interest at stake … The quest for a united Ireland is perfectly legitimate — but without the use of violence.
“People think we don’t want to let Northern Ireland [leave] the United Kingdom. If I’m completely honest [we’d do it] with pleasure.” (In the original German publication, this appears, memorably, as “Mit Handkuss” — literally, with a kiss of the hand.)
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“Mayhew’s complaint about the cost of the province — its block grant from Westminster now runs to £11bn a year, which would be equivalent to about an extra €2,000 (£1,660) on the average southerner’s annual tax bill — is one reason the Republic itself is far from united in welcoming unification. It’s not just the money.
“As a Dublin politician once put it to me: “Do you imagine we really want to govern the unruly Protestants of the north?”
Mr Lawson added that Mr Johnson’s treatment of Northern Ireland during Brexit negotiations may have revealed the government’s real feelings towards the region too.
He said: “The general theme of commentary on this side of the Irish Sea is that Boris Johnson has also blundered into “risking the loss of Northern Ireland” — since the nationalist community was overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit.
“This was exquisitely balanced by the prime minister’s subsequent betrayal of the DUP. In 2018 he addressed their annual conference in Belfast, urging them to vote in parliament against Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
“They did so, only to find that, as PM, Johnson agreed one with Brussels that — unlike his predecessor’s arrangement — creates a customs border in the Irish Sea and thus separates, to that extent, Northern Ireland from the mainland.”
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