Smith forges ahead at the Castle

JULIAN Smith had hardly got his feet under the table as Northern Ireland’s new Secretary of State before he put one of them in his mouth. He promised to treat ‘all parties equally’ then promptly headed off for a private dinner with Arlene Foster and the DUP at the Culloden Hotel. He failed to respond when Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald asked difficult questions about the threshold for calling a border poll but took to Twitter to reassure angry unionists that a picture of the Queen is still in place at his office in Stormont Castle.

Nonetheless he seems determined to forge ahead with the most difficult and thankless job in the British cabinet.

Historically it has been reserved for those with naked ministerial ambition, in the twilight of political life or those irritants Downing Street wished to send into the wilderness. Secretaries of State have come from all backgrounds and all parts of Britain, some have tried new thinking but ultimately all have failed.

The first was an affable Scottish squire, William Whitelaw, who introduced special category status for paramilitary prisoners and sought to negotiate with IRA leader Seán MacStiofáin. He was followed by Welsh aristocrat Francis Pym who oversaw the Sunningdale deal. Welsh coal miner’s son and Spitfire pilot, Merlyn Rees, tried to reason with the loyalists who brought down the Sunningdale Executive but his efforts were blown to pieces by the Dublin and Monaghan bombs and he departed with a severe case of ‘Celtic gloom.’ James Callaghan sent the plain speaking and pipe-smoking Yorkshireman Roy Mason. He was a miner who went underground at the age of 14 and took a tough line on terrorism from all quarters. He became a hate figure for republicans and an IRA target for the rest of his life.

The first Secretary of State I encountered in my reporting career was Humphrey Atkins. The editorial team was gathered around the radio in the old Sunday News in Belfast one Saturday night in 1979 waiting for news of Mrs Thatcher’s first appointment. We all responded, ‘Humphrey Who?’

Chief sub Des Ekin splashed the line across the front page next day.

Atkins was a glib advertising man from Buckinghamshire, a clown prince in pursuit of a career within the new Tory administration. He was unceremoniously dumped when the Iron Lady needed a place to exile rival and ‘arch-wet’ Jim Prior. The jolly Norfolk farmer was a decent man who began by telling us reporters that the first girl he’d ever kissed was from Northern Ireland. He did his best to make all sides see sense and negotiate an end to the Hunger Strike. My first trip to Stormont was to see his ‘rolling devolution’ experiment collapse. A sign at the door asked visitors to hang up their guns before entering. My neighbour and his son were killed in the violence that followed the death of Bobby Sands.

Prior was replaced by the patrician Douglas Hurd from Wiltshire who had the good sense to keep his mouth closed as he looked down his nose at us. Soldier Tom King took a parade ground approach but the Anglo Irish Agreement earned him nothing but hatred from last-ditch unionists. John Major sent recruitment expert Peter Brooke who started secret talks but made the crass error of singing Oh My Darling Clementine on RTE after the massacre at Teebane. ‘Babbling’ Brooke lost all credibility and made way for the opera loving barrister Sir ‘Paddy’ Mayhew. He spent five years glad-handing and expressing concern. The genial giant produced nothing new in policy terms and angered the Irish government over extradition and shoot-to-kill claims.

Tony Blair sent a deeply determined Mo Mowlam from Watford who was a breath of fresh air with her fearless, no-nonsense, approach but was too much of a maverick for the New Labour types as they consolidated power in London and she was pushed aside for the imperious Peter Mandelson, a key Blair strategist. He went on to a top post in the EU but will forever be remembered in Labour circles for thinking a portion of mushy peas was guacamole. Yet together with George Mitchell and Bertie Ahern they delivered and bedded-in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Seamus Mallon called it ‘Sunningdale for slow learners.’

My favourite Secretary of State by far was trade unionist John Reid. His reputation as a dour Glaswegian was not deserved and I heard him speak many times. Belfast was improving because of the new power sharing deal, he said. “You have tables and chairs in the street and cafe society. In Glasgow tables and chairs in the street means an eviction.”

Reid was followed by mild mannered academic and Welshman Paul Murphy then a former conservative media millionaire Shaun Woodward. They held the fort until the Tories came back, just in time for the next Ulster political crisis. First there was the horse-loving Shropshire lad Owen Paterson then lawyer Theresa Villiers from the Norfolk coast, who was unkindly dubbed ‘Cruella’ by nationalists. Another lawyer, Essex lad, James Brokenshire produced a sick line to get himself back on the plane to London and a job as Minister for Housing and he was replaced by a tax consultant from Staffordshire. Karen Bradley’s frank admission that she ‘did not understand Northern Ireland’s politics’ before she was appointed in 2018 was confirmed by those who accused her of having no understanding on the day she departed in July 2019.

Julian Smith, aged 48, grew up in Scotland but has been MP for rural Skipton and Ripon in the north east of England since 2010. He appears to have a background in ‘executive recruitment’ and has held high powered roles in the Treasury and as the Tory party’s chief whip where he was accused of seeking to break a long-standing gentleman’s agreement over the pairing of MPs in Commons voting.

He will have to demonstrate a great deal of fancy footwork up at the Castle if he wishes to earn a reputation as an honest broker in this troubled age of ‘no deal’ Brexits, Irish backstops and Stormont breakdowns.

© Maurice Neill 2019