New NI secretary ‘to treat all parties equally’

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Image caption Julian Smith said he would work equally with every Northern Ireland party

The new Northern Ireland secretary has said he will act impartially in his new role as he pursues a Stormont deal.

Julian Smith was speaking during a visit to Londonderry.

Earlier he held talks with the main political parties and the Irish foreign minister in Belfast.

Mr Smith was asked how he would reassure other parties he would not favour the DUP as a result of the government’s confidence and supply agreement with the party.

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“My responsibility as secretary of state is to represent and work for every citizen in Northern Ireland and to work equally with every party,” he said.

“I’m very clear on both the spirit of that [Good Friday] Agreement and the law.”

Mr Smith was welcomed by the SDLP deputy mayor of Derry and Strabane Council, Cara Hunter, at the Guildhall.

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Protestors from the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign as well as activists in favour of same-sex marriage and Irish language legislation demonstrated as he arrived.

Image caption Protestors from the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign, same-sex marriage activists and campaigners for Irish language legislation were present as Mr Smith visited Londonderry

Mr Smith did not engage with any of the groups.

Legacy, LGBT rights and language issues are among the key sticking points preventing an agreement to allow a return of a Northern Ireland executive.

Earlier the secretary of state met Sinn Fein, Alliance, the SDLP and Ulster Unionists and the Irish foreign minister at Stormont. He spoke on the telephone to DUP leader Arlene Foster.

‘Far too long’

Mr Smith said that he had asked all of the parties to attend talks on Monday and Tuesday.

“We have got to get these talks up and running. It has been going on far too long,” he said.

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“I’m going to make sure that I push as hard as I can to get these talks going, because there are a whole range of issues that need resolving.

“The biggest issue is to make sure that public services and basic, important decisions are made for every citizen in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Smith has previously worked closely with the DUP and he attended the party’s annual conference in 2017.

The DUP has considerable influence at Westminster due to its confidence and supply agreement which helps to keep the Conservative government in power.

Northern Ireland’s devolved government collapsed over two and half years ago and Mr Smith will be in charge of all-party talks to restore Stormont.

Image caption Mr Smith talking to Ian Paisley at the DUP party conference in 2017

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said she asked Mr Smith about the “threshold” for calling a poll on Irish reunification and told him she hoped he would be “the last British secretary of state”.

She said he took the remark “in good part”, adding he understood that would be the position of Irish republicans.

Image caption Mary Lou McDonald said Mr Smith’s impartiality would be “tested in the coming weeks”

“We also presented him with a copy of the Good Friday Agreement,” Mrs McDonald said.

“He assured us that he had, in fact, read it and he’s re-reading it and we took some heart from that.”

She said the new secretary of state needed a “fair wind” to read himself into his brief but she warned that the current talks process “cannot stagger on indefinitely”.

Mrs McDonald said the DUP’s relationship with the Conservatives had “poisoned the water” in Northern Ireland and had helped to prevent the return of devolution.

“He has committed that he will deal with all the parties on the basis of equality and impartiality,” she said, adding this would be “tested in the coming weeks”.

‘Yes man’

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said: “We went in with a very simple and direct question – is he going to be part of the solution or is he going to be part of the problem?

Image caption Nichola Mallon said the SDLP will be “very honest if he’s not up to the job”

“There’s a clear concern that he’s been appointed as a ‘yes man’ to the DUP.”

Mr Johnson appointed the new secretary of state on Wednesday, after sacking his predecessor, Karen Bradley, whose time in office was widely criticised by all main parties.

Ms Mallon said “time will tell” if Mr Smith could do a better job than Mrs Bradley.

“We’re going to be very honest – if he’s not up to the job; if he’s part of the problem and not the solution then we will call it, because people across Northern Ireland deserve to know the truth.”

‘DUP tantrums’

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said the introductory session had been “useful” and Mr Smith “needs time to put his feet under the table”.

However, Mr Beattie added: “We made it absolutely clear to him that, no matter what his relationship is with the DUP, he cannot be a sop to their tantrums.”

Image caption Doug Beattie called on Mr Smith ‘bang heads together’ at the Stormont talks

The UUP MLA warned the new secretary of state that he must not “ignore the smaller parties” in the talks aimed at restoring devolution, in favour of the two biggest parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin.

“He has to bang their heads together and he needs to get this process moving forward,” Mr Beattie said.

‘Firewall’

The DUP MP for East Belfast Gavin Robinson dismissed concerns over Mr Smith’s neutrality saying his party did not meet Mr Smith at Stormont due to “logistical reasons”.

He said that that the confidence and supply agreement between the Tories and DUP included a “firewall between the [Northern Ireland Office] and that relationship”.

Mr Smith is going to bring positivity to the political process, he added.

‘Hands tied’

Asked for her first impressions of the new secretary of state, Alliance leader Naomi Long said she had no doubt he was “an intelligent man, but it’s not about personalities”.

“I didn’t dislike Karen Bradley but she was completely incapable of actually delivering as secretary of state, part of that was because she arrived her with her hands tied behind her back by the relationship between the DUP and the Conservative Party.”

Image caption Naomi Long warned Mr Smith about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit,

Mrs Long said she feared Mr Smith would suffer from the same situation.

“We find ourselves essentially with the same challenges and different faces and now we’re having to essentially read in new people to the situation we have been trying to address for the last two and a half years.”

Mr Smith also discussed Brexit with the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, but most of their meeting concentrated on restoring devolution.

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Simon Coveney said Mr Smith wanted to “reach out” to the smaller parties

Mr Coveney described the new secretary of state as “very smart” and “a man who can get things done”.

“I think he understands the political parties in Northern Ireland. He obviously understands the DUP very well because he’s worked with them in London but I think he’s very anxious to reach out to the other political parties too.”

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