THE new Secretary of State has said he believes the institutions established following the Good Friday Agreement are still strong enough to withstand the threat posed by ongoing dissident attacks.
Julian Smith was speaking in an exclusive interview with the Strabane Chronicle.
It took place as part of an ongoing engagement process during which he has met with health workers, community organisations and business representatives.
Just weeks into his tenure in the post, the MP spoke extensively on the need to avoid a hard border and pleaded with politicians here to re-establish the Stormont Executive.
Speaking following a spate of recent bomb attacks on police, Mr Smith also urged a ‘tread carefully’ approach in order to avoid a return to violence, 25 years after the first IRA ceasefire of 1994.
“We’ve got to be confident that we are in a much stronger place than decades ago. But we also cannot take that for granted,” he said.
“It is about ensuring that all of the time we are respecting, honouring and reflecting on the work that was done by so many people which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement and the institutions coming together.”
But, as talks continue between the main parties about a possible return to Stormont, the Conservative politician went on to warn that it was up to local politicians to resolve issues including the Irish Language Act, recognition of Ulster Scots and new equal marriage and abortion laws.
Nevertheless, he expressed confidence that the range of issues which still needed to be resolved were ‘relatively limited’.
“If they can’t resolve things then we will have a new abortion law and same sex marriage on October 21. If they (the politicians) want to do that in a way that they feel is right for Northern Ireland, then they need to be back in Stormont by that date,” he added.
“We have to keep encouraging the party leaders to come together and to continue relentlessly to make those conversations happen, to try and get them to come together.
“We have to be convinced that there are responsibilities with Brexit and make sure that public services are given the direction that they need. Last week I went around hospitals, schools and a whole range of public organisations and met people on waiting lists of two years for hip and knee operations. These things should not be happening.”
Mr Smith said that he and Boris Johnston would also work to ensure that each potential scenario around Brexit worked.
However, he again pushed the onus back on local politicians and the need for them to ‘direct the decision-making process’ around leaving the European Union and the potential for a hard border between the North and the Republic.
“I cannot sit here and say that I think no deal is a good outcome for Northern Ireland. It is not, and that is why I will do everything I can to get a deal and support the PM in getting that,” he continued.
“There are very specific issues which are unique to Northern Ireland which is why I believe we need a deal. If we did get into a no deal situation then we have prepared and ensured that the flow of people and the ease of doing business is as close as possible to what it is today. My job is to make sure that if you’re talking the no deal scenario that we do everything we can in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Civil Service to make that happen. One of the challenges is that we don’t have Stormont up and running and the consequences of that is that the UK Government isn’t able to direct decision-making on all these topics.
“I think Stormont could make a difference in two ways. One is that if you could make some Northern Ireland/Ireland changes to the deal then that would be one positive change.
“Second, in relation to preparing for no deal you need people to take decisions on where can you provide financial support and where can you make particular investments to help business, farmers, processing people and other organisations. It’s very difficult to take those decisions without having Stormont in place.”
He went on to say that the British and Irish Governments would be holding ‘intense discussions’ on ensuring that there is no hard border.