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EU referendum: Arlene Foster joins Theresa Villiers on Brexit

Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers joins activists at the Vote Leave campaign in central London
Brendan Hughes

FIRST Minister Arlene Foster has joined Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers in backing an exit from the European Union.

The DUP leader said her party remains Eurosceptic and would recommend a vote to leave the EU in the historic referendum on June 23.

But she added they "fully expect that DUP members and voters will hold a range of differing personal views" and they are "fully entitled to do so".

The 'Brexit' endorsement came amid a dramatic weekend in politics that saw six British government ministers join the campaign to leave the EU.

Among them, following weeks of speculation, was Northern Ireland secretary of state Theresa Villiers.

Ms Villiers said she will vote to leave the EU "to take back control over our country and making our laws and controlling our borders".

British prime minister David Cameron, who has negotiated EU reforms for the UK, has warned that leaving Europe would be a "leap in the dark".

"Those who want to leave Europe cannot tell you if British businesses would be able to access Europe's free trade single market, or if working people's jobs are safe, or how much prices would rise," he said.

But Ms Villiers said although there were "risks on both sides of this debate", the "safer option" was to leave.

The minister, who was a member of the European Parliament for six years, said the UK could then "negotiate a new deal based on free trade and cooperation".

"In the decades ahead we face a European project that is ever more determined to integrate, to take more powers and we could be outvoted many times over the years to come," she said.

"So there is no stable status quo for us to cling to."

However, her stance has been met with criticism on both sides of the Irish border.

Fianna Fáil spokesman on foreign affairs Brendan Smith said her decision was "wrong for Northern Ireland" and "deeply worrying".

"Secretary Villiers is entitled to her own views on this matter and that must be fully respected. However, I believe it is clear that a Brexit would be bad for Northern Ireland and bad for Irish-British relations," he said.

And SDLP leader Colum Eastwood last night called for Ms Villiers to resign as secretary of state should the north vote to stay in the European Union.

"The secretary of state has chosen to join the extremists and the eccentrics in advocating a vote to leave the European Union. In doing so, Theresa Villiers is not representing the interests of the north but those of her own internal Tory agenda," he said.

"In placing herself at the frontline of the Leave campaign, the secretary of state has now firmly attached her fate to the result of this referendum.

"By nailing her colours to the mast with such publicity, Theresa Villiers will have little choice but to resign her position should the north vote to remain within the EU."

Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness described Ms Villiers as being "cut off from public opinion" in the north.

"It's odd that Theresa Villiers should now be advocating withdrawing from the EU when its benefits for the north are quite obvious," he said.

"It's not surprising however given the fact that she is not elected by and does not represent the people of the north that she should be so cut off from public opinion.

"All sections of our society have benefited from our EU membership and in the coming weeks and months Sinn Féin will campaign to stay in."

The Northern Ireland Office did not respond last night to requests for a response to the criticism.

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