The sacking of Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith has been branded “disastrous” and a “WTF” moment.
The move comes after the former chief whip’s success in delivering a power-sharing deal in the fragile region, which saw the Northern Ireland Assembly restored after three years of deadlock.
Mr Smith was replaced as Northern Ireland Secretary by Brandon Lewis.
Allies of Mr Smith told the PA news agency they were shocked at the decision to dismiss him from the Cabinet.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar hailed Mr Smith as “one of Britain’s finest politicians of our time”.
The move to axe Mr Smith came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson carried out a reshuffle of his top team.
Serving the people of Northern Ireland has been the biggest privilege. I am extremely grateful to @BorisJohnson for giving me the chance to serve this amazing part of our country. The warmth & support from people across NI has been incredible. Thank you so much.
— Julian Smith MP (@JulianSmithUK) February 13, 2020
Downing Street reportedly felt left out of the loop over the terms of the deal Mr Smith was negotiating last month, which eventually led to the Assembly functioning again after a three-year suspension.
There are concerns in Tory circles that the agreement includes plans for a historical investigations unit whose remit will include alleged crimes by British soldiers during the Troubles.
But those close to Mr Smith insisted that Number 10 and the Prime Minister had been kept fully informed about the terms of the Stormont arrangement.
“There was a write-round of Cabinet ministers,” a source said, pointing out that Mr Smith travelled back from Belfast on January 6 to personally brief Mr Johnson.
There had been a series of memos sent back and forth between Mr Smith’s team and Number 10 and it was “absolute crap” to suggest they had been blindsided.
The reaction in Northern Ireland to the news had been “WTF”, the source added.
Spoke with @JulianSmithUK a short time ago to thank him for his help in getting devolution restored. We may not have always agreed (we did sometimes) but his dedication to the role was incredible. Best wishes to him and his family. Always welcome in Fermanagh. https://t.co/2hUzOWmRBS
— Arlene Foster (@DUPleader) February 13, 2020
Irish premier Mr Varadkar said: “In eight months as Secretary of State, Julian you helped to restore powersharing in Stormont, secured an agreement with us to avoid a hard border, plus marriage equality.
“You are one of Britain’s finest politicians of our time. Thank you.”
First Minister Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, praised the outgoing secretary of state for his “incredible” dedication.
“Spoke with Julian Smith a short time ago to thank him for his help in getting devolution restored,” she tweeted.
“We may not have always agreed (we did sometimes) but his dedication to the role was incredible. Best wishes to him and his family. Always welcome in Fermanagh.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood had harsh words for the PM, calling the sacking a “strategic error” by the Conservative Party leader.
Thanking Mr Smith for his work since being appointed in July, he said: “It defies belief that, after the successful restoration of power-sharing following a three-year collapse, Julian Smith’s reward is a Cabinet Office P45.
“It tells you all you need to know about Boris Johnson’s attitude to the north that he would sack the most successful secretary of state in a decade. He is at best indifferent.”
Marty Adams, from historical abuse victims’ campaign group Survivors Together, drew parallels with Mo Mowlam, the former Labour Northern Ireland secretary who was demoted by Tony Blair only six months after delivering the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Mr Adams called for Mr Johnson to “see sense” and reappoint Mr Smith to the role.
“We have not seen an excellent secretary of state that knows the needs and wants from both sides of the divide since Mo Mowlam,” he said.
“We have no doubt if he can unite victims of historical abuse and deliver in the manner that he did, he can solve a lot of issues in this country.
“Stormont faces a rocky road ahead and to sack the architect of the New Deal, New Decade would be disastrous.”
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said the party wants to meet with whoever replaces Julian Smith as Northern Ireland secretary “urgently”.
Speaking in Dublin on Thursday, she said: “Obviously for us, whoever the Secretary of State is, we will deal with them.
“I am concerned that the sacking of Julian Smith, that this is the British state rowing back on dealing with issues of legacy. Families who have suffered and have suffered still and in many cases have waited for decades for answers.”