It would be “very controversial” to introduce border controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in the event of Britain leaving the EU, Theresa Villiers has said.
The prospect of such a constitutionally problematic development has raised by several people, including the Prime Minister, and would be an issue of major concern for unionists, who would no longer be able to travel within their own country without producing a passport.
Some people believe that such a move is likely if Britain quits the EU because security, business and political concerns would make it difficult to reinstate border controls at border crossings with the Republic.
When David Cameron visited the Province just over a week ago, he said that those calling for an ‘Out’ vote had to tell the public “what should happen at the border and the movement of European Union nationals ... if you don’t do things there would you do things before people get on the Stranraer ferry?”.
But, in an interview with the News Letter, Mr Cameron’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was fairly dismissive of that suggestion.
“That would be very controversial,” she said.
“I think there are ways in which we would manage the risks around the common travel area. We’ve managed to do that for a hundred years or so, we did it before EU membership.
“I am absolutely convinced that we would find ways to manage these risks after a UK exit if that happened. It’s in the interests of both countries to do that. We can find a way to make it work.”
When Ms Villiers was asked whether it was inconceivable that there would be passport control between Northern Ireland and Scotland, she said: “Well, I can see that that would be very controversial.
“There are a range of ways that we could manage and continue with the common travel area which I’m sure wouldn’t necessitate the sort of checks that you’re talking about.”
She said that Irish citizens “have always had a special status in the UK well before anyone invented the concept of free movement and there is no reason why that shouldn’t continue”.
Surely if there were no border controls either at the border or at Stranraer then Northern Ireland would become an open door into the UK for the rest of the EU?
“Well, there would be risks to manage in relation to the border,” she said.
“But there already are such risks and close working relationships between the UK and Ireland have ensured that we manage those risks pretty effectively. I am sure that we could continue to do so in the event of the UK exit.”
Ms Villiers also rounded on ‘In’ campaigners who have said that the onus is on the ‘Out’ campaign to spell out exactly how the UK would look if it left the EU.
The Chipping Barnet MP said: “The allegation is that all the uncertainty would come with an exit vote. But there is plenty of uncertainty which comes with staying in – we know, for example, that the eurozone needs to integrate more to effectively create a single economic and budgetary policy; it’s very difficult to predict what the impact is going to be on the ‘out’ countries.
“The protections which the Prime Minister has got on these issues are helpful, but there is still very significant risks [to staying in the EU].”
She said that the EU had a consistent history of “more centralisation, more powers being transferred to Brussels, more money being transferred to Brussels”, meaning that “the status quo is also fraught with risk for us”.
‘This is more important than my job’
There has been speculation that if David Cameron wins the EU referendum then those Cabinet ministers who have supported an ‘Out’ vote could be axed.
When asked if her decision to go against the Prime Minister would effectively be the end of her Cabinet career, she said: “I don’t think one can predict with certainty on these matters.
“Of course I’ve reflected on how the decision impacts on me personally and I did think very hard about all of this, but we are talking about a quesiton about whether we become an independent self-governing democracy.
“That’s a bigger question than what role I might do in government in future.”
She added: “I didn’t really think I could live with myself if I found myself on the side of the debate which I didn’t believe in ... I am profoundly grateful to the Prime Minister for giving everyone the choice, including his Cabinet.”