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Prime Minister Theresa May rules out 'standing on the border'

Prime Minister Theresa May is shown around Fairview Farm near Bangor by owners Stephen and Susanne Jackson and their daughters Hannah, Abbie and Emily
Gary McDonald Business Editor

PRIME Minister Theresa May has effectively ruled out going anywhere near the Irish border between now and the UK's exit from Europe being triggered in exactly a year's time.

She spent two hours in Northern Ireland yesterday as part of a whistle-stop tour to all four parts of the United Kingdom, when her focus was on meeting farmers to hear their views on what Brexit means to them.

There are an estimated 48,000 people working on 25,000 farms in the north, yet she chose to go to the Jackson family's 132-acre Fairview dairy farm in Bangor - just about as far from the border as it's possible to get.

She said Northern Ireland and the farming industry "are integral parts of the UK’s history, culture and our future – which is why I’m here today to speak to farmers, hear their views and assure them that my mission is to deliver a Brexit deal that strengthens the bonds between us and ensures our industries and nations prosper as we forge a new role for ourselves in the world."

But when challenged if she was prepared to go to the border and see for herself the potential issues farmers were concerned about, Mrs May refused to give any commitments.

She said: "My diary over the next year hasn't yet been set. But it's not just a question of whether I actually go and stand on the border. It's a question of do I understand the issues as they impact the people directly - and I do.

"I absolutely understand how important this is for people generally in Northern Ireland but obviously particularly for those who are living close to, and in some cases, may have homes that straddle the border.

"Agriculture is one of the most significant industries in Northern Ireland, and what I'm doing here today is listening to farmers and representatives from the agri-food industry, hearing about what they want to see coming out of Brexit and what are the opportunities in the future."

Mrs May also used her fleeting stop-over to reaffirm the government's opposition to a hard border.

"The border is used daily for travel and trade, but it also forms a hugely important part of British and Irish identities, rooted in generations of family history - and this is something that needs to be protected," the prime minister said.

She also offered some comfort to businesses in the north concerned at the potential for retaining their migrant labour after Brexit.

She told the Irish News: "Many Europeans made life choices to come to the United Kingdom when we were part of the EU and it's important they are able to continue to live and work and carry on their lives here on the same basis, and we are committed to settled status rules.

"Looking ahead, we will be setting our own immigration rules. But we're not going to pull up the drawbridge and say nobody can come here in the future. We recognise that people in the EU 27 will want to work and study here in the UK just as people from the UK will want to do likewise in the EU."

Mrs May's visit came against the backdrop of Sinn Fein accusations that she was continuing to ignore the voices of Remain voters who support staying within the customs union and single market.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said: “It's time for the British government to bring forward workable proposals as to how the imposition of a hard border in Ireland will be avoided and the rights of citizens protected. We need to see these proposals by the summer."

DUP MEP Diane Dodds said: "Ensuring a sensible Brexit requires going beyond simply defending Northern Ireland’s current position. It means finding practical solutions to the emotive issue of the border, which has won many hearts but thus far very few open or practical minds.

"It's worth remembering that the Irish Republic inspects only 1 per cent of goods reaching their shores from outside the EU - second only to Gambia in the fewest physical checks."

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