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 Ulster Herald.
It took place as part of an ongoing engagement process during which Mr Smith has been meeting 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 targeting police, Mr Smith 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 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 such as an Irish Language Act, recognition of Ulster Scots and new equal marriage and abortion laws.
“If they (politicians) can’t resolve things then we will have a new abortion law and same sex marriage on October 21. If they want to do that in a way they feel is right for Northern Ireland, then they need to be back in Stormont by that date,” he added.
“I feel quite strongly that it is the responsibility of the politicians to make the decision on a return to Stormont,” Mr Smith said.
“There have been some good further discussion on talks and all of the parties are keeping engaged. But I need them to engage at a much more rapid pace.
“We’ve got a few weeks to try and get things moving and we must keep encouraging the party leaders to come together and continue relentlessly to make those conversations happen to try and get them to come together.
“We have to be convinced that there are the responsibilities of 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.”
With a potential No-Deal Brexit now fast approaching on October 31, Mr Smith said a deal would be better for the North and that he would be working ‘24-7’ with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ensure this was achieved.
He added that the British Government would also work to ensure 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 ensuring that the potential for a hard border between the North and the Republic is avoided.