The new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has given the indication of greater willingness to implement social reforms than his predecessor, however he faces challenges to his authority in the shape of Brexit, legacy in Northern Ireland and his relationship with the DUP.
In August, Margaret McGuckin, a long-standing campaigner from Savia (Survivors and Victims and Institutional Abuse) declared a meeting with new Secretary of State Julian Smith to be “the best one we have ever had with a Secretary of State”.
McGuckin was amongst a number of people who called for former Secretary of State Karen Bradley to resign after a decision to defer legislation to release payments to victims. Bradley was eventually sacked by new Prime Minister Boris Johnson but was just one of a longline of Secretaries of State’s who have failed to impress when tasked with the Northern Ireland portfolio.
Smith has outlined his desire to see legislation to secure compensation for victims, a key recommendation of the Hart Inquiry in 2017 and unlike Bradley, appears to be working to the presumption that Stormont will not be returning in the near future.
“He had done his homework. He was informed about the outstanding issues, he knew about all the lobbying and campaigning that has been done,” McGuckin said.
“While he couldn’t give us an exact date, he recognised that we have support of all parties locally, at Westminster and the House of Lords and so the legislation should pass unhindered
“This feels different finally like a turning point for our people, who have been under so much pressure. This positive news has put a smile back on all our faces.”
Smith, a Scottish-born MP, was selected for the role by Johnson in July. An MP for Skipton and Ripon since 2010, his most recent role in Government was that of parliamentary secretary to the treasury and chief whip.
Smith’s elevation to Johnson’s cabinet alongside a host of Brexiteers would give the impression that Smith is now aligned with Johnson’s outlook that the UK must leave the European Union by 31 October, through any means.
A remain campaigner in the 2016 referendum, as Theresa May’s chief whip he failed three times to pass her withdrawal agreement and developed a close relationship with the DUP, attempting to keep their 10 MPs onside in a hung parliament.
In 2017, he attended the DUP’s annual conference and he will undoubtedly face similar criticism to his predecessors around his and the Government’s impartiality in Northern Ireland matters, given his party’s confidence and supply deal with the DUP.
It’s likely that Smith will increase efforts beyond Bradley’s arm’s length approach to restore Stormont, however, his main challenge will come in the form of the Executive Formation Act and proposed reforms around same sex marriage and abortion, as well as his outlook on the prosecution of former soldiers.
While early indications are that Smith is willing to progress the social reform agenda in the absence of Stormont, there are concerns that a UK election before or after Brexit could stall such moves.