Brexit risk to peace process claims 'absolute nonsense'
Former Northern Ireland Secretary of State Owen Paterson has dismissed as "absolute nonsense" claims that the peace process could be threatened by Britain leaving the European Union.
Election & Brexit briefing Newsletter
The Conservative MP, one of the leading campaigners for a Brexit, said that anyone raising fears about the security situation was being "pretty irresponsible".
Speaking to this newspaper ahead of a visit to Belfast on Monday, he added: "This sort of talk is yet another part of the negative campaigning that's going on and it's ridiculous. There is close co-operation between the UK and the Irish authorities, and that will carry on regardless of the political arrangements with the EU."
Taoiseach Enda Kenny warned earlier this year that Northern Ireland could face "serious difficulties" in the event of a Brexit, such as the return of border controls. "Now is not the time to weaken the cohesive stabilising influence and outward focus that shared EU membership brings to Northern Ireland," he said.
But Mr Paterson dismissed the Taoiseach's warning and said politicians and commentators should stop "scaremongering" on the issue of security and the peace process.
"There's a great deal of work that goes on between the PSNI and the gardai on a daily basis," Mr Paterson added. "Nothing will happen to change that. I spent three years as shadow Northern Ireland secretary going down to Dublin and getting to know leading figures in the Irish Government and in the gardai before I became Secretary of State, so that I had the contacts in place when I became secretary, and that work continued. It's still the case today.
"We have the greatest of respect for the Irish Government and the gardai, and that's nothing whatever to do with the EU. It's a bilateral relationship which will, of course, continue."
Mr Paterson also rubbished the suggestion that a Brexit could mean a return to border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic - a possibility also raised by Mr Kenny.
"That would be completely impractical," he said. "There are examples in different parts of Europe where the EU acknowledges that countries have different political arrangements. The idea of border posts in Ireland should not be clouding the discussion."
Mr Paterson headed the Northern Ireland Office for two-and-a-half years and was succeeded in September 2012 by Theresa Villiers, who is also campaigning for a Brexit.
He is one of four guest speakers taking part in the Big EU Business Debate scheduled to be held at the Northern Ireland Science Park on Monday night.
Mr Paterson will line up alongside Northern Ireland-born Labour MP Kate Hoey to put the case for a Brexit. Labour's Vernon Coaker, shadow secretary of state, and former Tory MEP John Stevens will argue that Britain should remain a member of the European Union.
Around 150 people, including business leaders in manufacturing and service companies, entrepreneurs and farmers, have signed up for the event. It will be live-streamed online throughout the UK, and the Belfast Telegraph will host a live pre-debate discussion with key speakers and guests.
You can follow the event from 6.30pm on Monday via our website, www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk