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I'm fully engaged, insists Theresa May as she rejects criticism over Stormont talks

By Noel McAdam

Theresa May has denied taking a "hands off" approach to Northern Ireland during a visit to Balmoral Show.

The Prime Minister spent almost half-an-hour at the event on Saturday and spoke of her hopes for the talks to restore Stormont following the June 8 general election.

Mrs May had planned a trip to Northern Ireland before triggering Article 50 in March, although it was said she would not be joining the parties then at negotiations to restore Stormont. However, the visit did not take place.

On Saturday Mrs May rejected suggestions she had been detached in relation to the talks.

"I have been personally engaged," she countered, adding that she had been in touch with the DUP and Sinn Fein leaders.

"I have had contact with both Michelle (O'Neill) and Arlene (Foster)," she said.

"But what is important if we are going to see what we all want - which is a return to a strong and stable devolved administration here in Northern Ireland - is that the parties here in Northern Ireland come together and agree to an agreement that can enable that devolved administration to be established."

Mrs May also appeared to slightly amend her language over the issue of border controls with the Republic after Brexit.

In the past she said the UK and Irish Governments wanted a "frictionless" border, but on Saturday she referred to wanting new arrangements "as seamless and frictionless as possible".

Accompanied by Secretary of State James Brokenshire and a number of the Conservative candidates standing for election in Northern Ireland, Mrs May walked through some of the exhibition halls, shaking hands and meeting people.

They included members of the Women's Institute, who were dressed up as nursery rhyme characters as part of a themed event.

She also posed for a number of selfies with onlookers.

As she walked past the main arena, Mrs May bumped into DUP leader Mrs Foster with her son Ben.

Insisting there was "goodwill on all sides", she said: "We have got to make sure we do resolve the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

"I'm very clear that we want to see no return to the borders of the past, no hard border - but I'm clear that we need to see as seamless and frictionless a border as possible."

Mrs May also defended the independence of prosecutors considering charging 18 British soldiers over involvement in Bloody Sunday in 1972.

Thirteen people were killed when members of the Parachute Regiment opened fire on civil rights demonstrators. A 14th died later.

The Prime Minister said: "First of all, prosecutors are independent and they will make their decisions, rightly, absolutely independently.

"I think what is important as we look forward is that as we see, looking into those issues of legacy and looking into what has happened in the past, that we ensure that is done in a fair and proportionate way."

Sinn Fein Brexit spokesman John O'Dowd said: "The arrogance of Theresa May is astounding - visiting the Balmoral Show while her Tory Cabinet is planning to impose Brexit on the north, which will be disastrous for our farming and agri-food industries.

"Since taking office Theresa May has visited the north once, taken one media question and then departed. Now that Mrs May has ticked a box and visited the north one more time for the election, she will jet off home and continue to ignore the democratic wishes of the people here."

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