'Turning point' in N Ireland talks
Political talks aimed at resolving a range of disputes destabilising the Stormont Executive have witnessed a positive turning point, the Northern Ireland Secretary has said.
Theresa Villiers' relatively optimistic assessment on the state of negotiations comes only days after she issued a blunt statement rating the chances of agreement as "slim".
She said a re-intensification of effort by the Executive's five parties over the last week had made her reappraise her bleak prediction. But she stressed an agreement was still a long way off.
Her comments came as Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny said he and Prime Minister David Cameron intended to travel to Northern Ireland as the talks intensified ahead of an effective Christmas deadline.
Ms Villiers convened the process aimed at settling a series of wrangles that continue to hold back progress in Northern Ireland.
As well as long standing peace process disputes over flags, parades and the toxic legacy of the past, the talks are also trying to find a way through the impasse that has seen the Executive fail to implement the UK Government's welfare reforms in Northern Ireland.
The size and workings of the devolved administration are also up for negotiation at the talks.
As Ms Villiers struck a more positive note, Stormont sources suggested a degree of progress might be possible, particularly on the issues of the past and on Executive structures.
The Northern Ireland Secretary and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan today reported back to Mr Cameron and Mr Kenny respectively on progress two months in to the process.
Ms Villiers said: "Obviously my assessments earlier in the week were extremely downbeat."
"I think they are the sort of comments perhaps the Northern Ireland media isn't used to hearing from me or previous secretaries of state.
"I think it was genuinely a turning point this week, I think the parties were very clear that they wanted this process to succeed.
"I think the engagement over the last few days I think is more serious, more business-like, more focused than actually has been the case up to date."
She added: "My assessment is more upbeat, is more cheerful is more positive today than it was a few days ago.
"I think a realistic assessment is we still have a way to go, we still have very significant differences between the parties and, on balance, I would be by no means confident of a successful outcome."
Ms Villiers said without a breakthrough on welfare reform a wider agreement would be "impossible".
The Conservative MP was attending the British Irish Council meeting on the Isle of Man. Mr Kenny was also present at the summit, as were Stormont Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Finance Minister Simon Hamilton.
Mr Kenny said the report filed by Mr Flanagan was "very optimistic that progress still can be made".
"I have to say his report indicates that the parties in Northern Ireland have been very positively disposed towards, first of all, the talks and, secondly, making progress in respect of three difficult issues - flags, the past and parades," he said.
After revealing that he and Mr Cameron were considering a visit to Northern Ireland next month, Mr Kenny added: "From our point of view we want to encourage, to support, to assist in any way as a co guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and reports to date are of a positive disposition - progress is being made."
Mr McGuinness said failure in the talks "isn't an option".
"These talks have placed a very onerous responsibility on all of us to deal with the challenges we face, and the challenges are huge," he said.
The Sinn Fein veteran claimed the UK Government's "austerity" policies were inhibiting the chances of achieving meaningful progress in the region.
The DUP's Mr Hamilton said: "I don't think anybody doubts the difficulties the parties in Northern Ireland face in trying to reach agreement but my party called for these talks, we have been involved intensely in these talks - we are in the business of making progress."