Illustration by Hannah Robinson
At Boris Johnson’s last cabinet re-shuffle, the previous Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, was sacked, leaving the role open to be filled by the current incumbent, Brandon Lewis. The disappointment I felt at this shock announcement was triggered by a sinking feeling that we are to return to the blunders of Northern Ireland secretaries prior to Julian Smith. There has been a distinct lack of enthusiasm which is indicative of the wider attitude towards the role of Northern Ireland Secretary. It is one of disdain and underestimation, regardless of the crucial nature of the office.
This lack of regard for Northern Ireland is nothing new. Take a look at Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement. Going back on the requests of the DUP, the agreement sees the border for trade with the EU drawn across the Irish sea. This is a risky move for Northern Ireland. It is crucial that the region have a competent secretary of state to argue their corner in government as this has not always been the case.
The power-sharing agreement at Stormont broke down in 2017, following the Cash-for-Ash scandal and disagreement over the teaching of Irish language in Northern Irish schools. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the time, James Brokenshire, was criticised for his impasse on the matter and lack of creativity in his attempts to bring Sinn Féin and the DUP to an agreement. After Brokenshire’s resignation came Karen Bradley, who, for future generations, must serve as an example of how not to do the job. Upon her appointment, Bradley admitted to never having been to Northern Ireland, immediately sign-posting a lack of knowledge about the country. Yet, worse still, in an interview with House magazine, Bradley’s unsuitability for the role became even more explicit. Discussing her prior knowledge of Northern Irish politics, Bradley stated: “I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought for example in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa”.
The levels of disregard and incompetence shown by the ministers mentioned above is nothing new. Upon the instatement of Julian Smith, I didn’t have high hopes that anything would change. Yet indeed, unlike his two predecessors, Smith jumped straight in at the deep end. He dealt with the situation regarding the break-down of power-sharing at Stormont with poise and respect and was instrumental in facilitating the discussions between Sinn Féin and the DUP, eventually supporting them in coming to an agreement.
At a moment of uncertainty for the island of Ireland, maintaining stability should have been a key priority in the re-shuffle. With the unexpected surge of Sinn Féin in the republic, which will undoubtedly see renewed calls for a united Ireland coupled with the ambiguity of Brexit, consistency should have been key. Yet, as is often the case, factional politics won out, with Smith supposedly losing his post as a result of being outspoken in cabinet. Smith was a refreshing representative for Northern Ireland in the government and his dedication to improving the region’s political processes is something which, for a long time, had been lacking in Westminster.
Hopefully the new secretary of state, Brandon Lewis, will put his mind to the task. But the government’s continual lack of consideration of Northern Ireland continues to be an issue. The Troubles remain a part of living memory and it is imperative that the peace which took time and effort to achieve is maintained. With Northern Ireland forming a constituent part of this United Kingdom, it is time that its interests received the respect they deserve.