Stormont’s Justice Minister has warned that a UK exit from the EU could see return – even if only for a period – where terror suspects from the Republic could not be extradited to Northern Ireland.
Alliance leader David Ford acknowledged that in the event of Britain leaving the EU his successor could continue to have a good relationship with the Irish justice minister.
But, in an interview with the News Letter ahead of Alliance’s conference next weekend, he warned that the Troubles’ era difficulties in getting suspected terrorists extradited from the Republic could return.
Recalling those problems, he said: “All of that is now as smooth as can be under the basis of the European Arrest Warrant. If we’re not in the European Union, we would lose the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) and there is no southern legislation because they abandoned their old legislation when the EAW took over.”
Mr Ford said that at best, there would be “a gap” between the end of the EAW and the reintroduction of some new legislation at the Oireachtas to speed the extradition process, something he said was a “massive” security concern.
Referring to Theresa Villiers – who is one of six cabinet ministers arguing for the UK to leave the EU – Mr Ford said he found it difficult to see why “the MP for Chipping Barnet is acting more like the MP for Chipping Barnet than the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland”.
He did not endorse nationalist calls for her to resign as a result of her position on the referendum, saying that it was “all too easy to call on people to resign”. But he did question whether Ms Villiers “would be the right person to remain in post” if the UK votes to remain in the EU and there is a very strong vote to remain in Northern Ireland.
Asked if he was really suggesting that Ms Villiers should resign after the election if she is on the losing side, Mr Ford softened his position, saying that as the Secretary of State has been in post since 2012 “I think on that basis she’s entitled to assume that the Prime Minister will find her another job and save her the weekly commute to Stormont”.
He said there was also the danger of “constitutional destabilisation” if the UK quits the EU, although he did not claim that the peace process would be in jeopardy by such a move, as some ‘In’ campaigners have suggested.
Mr Ford said that in May’s Assembly election the party is targeting “around half a dozen” seats where it sees potential gains. Among its top targets are East Belfast — where Naomi Long is leading its ticket — along with neighbouring South Belfast and also North Belfast.
There have been rumours about a possible peerage for Mr Ford, should he stand down as leader, suggestions which he has repeatedly played down.
When asked if he would reject a peerage on principle, based on his opposition to an appointed upper chamber, Mr Ford expressed concern at the growing size of the House of Lords.
But, when it was put to the Alliance leader that he was not ruling out the possibility of accepting a peerage, he said: “Nobody ever says never and means it. But I can see no circumstances at the present time; my expectation is that I am unlikely to be anywhere in the mix for a ministry after the election, but I still expect to be an active MLA.”
DAVID FORD STEPPING DOWN AS JUSTICE MINISTER
David Ford is in his final weeks as Justice Minister, he has revealed.
When asked if he was looking towards retirement as Alliance leader this year, Mr Ford said: “If I was looking towards retirement this year, then the very significant birthday that I had yesterday [Wednesday] would have been the appropriate point.
“I don’t claim like Martin McGuinness to feel like a 20-year-old, but I certainly think I can justifiably say that I’m not much different than I was in mid or late 40s.
“That said, after six years in one of the most demanding departments in the Executive, I am not at this stage proposing to put my name forward for consideration by my colleagues if we are putting forward a minister for justice. But I am contesting the election as party leader; I will lead the party into that election...”
He said that no one within the party had told him that he should step aside. Mr Ford said that he would miss the job of Justice Minister, saying that it had been a “significant privilege” to take the departments which was considered too difficult for devolution in 1998 and which was considered too difficult for any other Executive party to be allowed to run in 2010.
But he said that he was not the only person in the Alliance Party capable of being a minister. The likely front runners would be current Stephen Farry and Naomi Long.