Villiers warns parties it's 'make your mind up time' over Stormont settlement
It is make your mind up time, the Secretary of State has bluntly warned the five main Stormont parties.
As pain-staking negotiations continued last night, Theresa Villiers, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness all signalled they want the talks to be completed this week.
But while optimism that a deal will be reached is increasing, there are also indications it may not be a comprehensive settlement covering all the areas of dispute.
Although progress is believed to have been made on Stormont's destabilised budget and over the stalemate on welfare reform, there are indications that agreement over dealing with the legacy of the Troubles could falter.
Ms Villiers said, however: "I really do think it is make your mind up time, and we need to get this sorted very soon - over the course of this week."
Ms Villiers, who along with the Irish Foreign Minister has chaired 150 meetings over the last 10 weeks, conceded there were still "significant" sticking points around the so-called legacy issues but said "genuine progress" had been made on financial matters.
The sticking point is believed to centre around disclosure by the proposed Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) breaching national security protocols.
"We have had plenty of time to discuss the issues," Mrs Villiers said.
"Everyone recognises that we cannot go on with this process indefinitely. We cannot all be sat there on Christmas Eve.
"It is vitally urgent that the devolved institutions can get back to normal so that we can get through these disputes so that we can get powersharing working again as it was intended to be.
"This continuing deadlock isn't good for any of the parties in the Executive or for the credibility of the devolved institutions themselves." As the talks entered their 10th week - four weeks beyond the initial deadline some of the parties had indicated - Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said the next day or two would be critical.
"I think I fully expect that there will be an agreement, hopefully a comprehensive agreement, before the middle of this week," he said.
Confirming ongoing difficulties over legacy issues, he commented: "The British Government are trying to hide behind this label of national security and I think we need to see a resolution of that and I believe the discussions over the course of this day will probably concentrate on that more than anything else. In other matters, great progress has been made between ourselves and the DUP. This is really a sticking point which revolves around the approach of the British Government."
If, however, a consensus on the legacy issues could not be achieved, Mr McGuinness said there was a responsibility on politicians to press ahead with other aspects of the agreement.
DUP leader Mr Robinson said he was, "still optimistic and hopefully within the next few days we will be able to make sufficient progress to be able to make an announcement.
"I think we need to get the most comprehensive agreement that is possible. I don't exclude anything from that. I would like to see all of these issues dealt with. I will be disappointed if they can't all be dealt with."