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Whatever the EU referendum result, close security co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic must continue

By Frances Fitzgerald

Next week, the people of Northern Ireland are being asked to make a momentous decision when they vote in the referendum on UK membership of the European Union.

The Irish Government recognises that this is a matter to be decided solely by the electorate in the UK. Given the shared history of these islands, we have a uniquely shared interest in the outcome of the referendum.

The position of the Irish government cannot be clearer. We very much want Northern Ireland and Great Britain as a part of the EU, so that we can continue to work together as close friends and partners.

It is clear to me that continued joint membership of the EU will help both parts of this island progress to reach its full economic and social potential.

I believe that common membership of the EU played an important role in the Irish and UK governments working together to secure peace on this island. The EU has been a key enabler in the peace process. PEACE programmes have supported many community initiatives for reconciliation across Northern Ireland over the years.

The new PEACE IV Programme, with funding of €180m, can continue that essential 'grassroots' investment in peace across communities in Northern Ireland.

As Tanaiste and Justice Minister, I am particularly aware of the potential impact of a UK departure from the EU on criminal justice issues.

One of my biggest concerns relates to the future of the Common Travel Area, which we have shared since 1922, reflecting the ties of history and families, as well as labour market and business needs.

The protection of the Common Travel Area and Ireland's membership of the EU are key goals of the Irish government and we see them as essential for the prosperity and development of both jurisdictions.

I know, too, that the British Government shares our views on the protection of the Common Travel Area - whatever the result of the referendum.

The reality is, though, in the event of a Leave vote, no one knows if the Common Travel Area can remain in place as it is. We just don't know what sort of new relationship will be negotiated between the EU and the United Kingdom in areas such as migration and customs.

The land border between north and south will become an external border of the European Union, so it is not credible that the nature of the border is not at issue.

We will do everything in our power to ensure the Common Travel Area remains in place, but this will be a difficult fight. A decision to leave is inevitably a leap into the unknown.

The Good Friday Agreement was an historic benchmark that presented an opportunity to develop a better future for the island of Ireland - one based on partnership and mutual respect.

Despite the great advances that have been made since 1998, with the support of the EU, there are still challenges to be faced on this island from terrorism and serious crime. While we will continue to face those challenges, working in partnership and co-operation, whatever the outcome of this referendum, we simply cannot ignore that the EU framework of police and justice co-operation directly supports and enhances those efforts.

I am particularly conscious of EU measures such as the European Arrest Warrant. It was only as far back as the Eighties when the issue of extradition was such a deeply divisive issue. In the last 10 years, more than 500 criminals - wanted for the most serious of crimes - were surrendered between Ireland and the UK under the EU arrangements with little fuss, or controversy. No one wants to see a situation where criminals could potentially use the border as a means of evading justice.

In this context, it is hard not to see the UK leaving the European Arrest Warrant system as a hugely retrograde step.

Last week at the Justice and Home Affairs Council in Luxembourg, my fellow ministers and I discussed an extensive range of matters designed to improve everyday life for people. The issues ranged from the Digital Single Market, to victims' rights in cross-border crimes, to the sharing of criminal records and, of course, the migration crisis and the fight against terrorism.

We discussed recent organised crime developments and how we can best co-operate to tackle the serious threat posed by criminal gangs in our countries and across Europe.

We need to continue to work together to address such issues and that the security of all is enhanced by our continued joint membership of the EU. Particularly in the field of justice and police co-operation, the UK has led the way over many years and it is in all our interests that the UK should remain as an active partner at the European table.

We all want a peaceful, secure and prosperous Northern Ireland and I believe this can best be achieved with continued membership of the EU. We have worked so closely together in recent years in transforming relations through successive agreements aimed at securing peace in Northern Ireland.

No matter what happens on June 23, we must ensure that the friendship and partnership continues.

  • Frances Fitzgerald TD is the Republic's Tanaiste (deputy Prime Minister) and Justice Minister

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