Hopes rise for agreement next week as DUP and Sinn Fein edge closer to a deal
Sinn Fein and the DUP were last night putting the final touches to a potential deal to restore power-sharing at Stormont.
Well-placed talks sources said that if progress continued to be made at the current rate, an agreement between the two parties could be revealed next week.
While the deal still isn't over the line, Northern Ireland has moved nearer to restoring devolution than at any time since Sinn Fein brought down the Executive a year ago.
There is speculation that Theresa May and Leo Varadkar may both come to Belfast next week to oversee the closure of a deal.
DUP and Sinn Fein negotiators will have to sell any proposed agreement to their senior party colleagues.
News that a breakthrough in the talks was imminent was exclusively revealed by the Belfast Telegraph on Thursday.
There has been significant progress on the Irish language, which has been the main stumbling block in discussions.
A senior political source predicted that the issue of equal marriage would be circumvented. "The can will be kicked down the road," he said.
While the DUP remains opposed to equal marriage, it has stressed to Sinn Fein that it no longer has the numbers in the Assembly to block the matter through a petition of concern.
Both parties remained locked in negotiations late last night.
Speaking on the eve of his retirement as Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams said: "It isn't sorted out as we speak.
"We have made some progress but there are still considerable obstacles, but as I said to our unionist friends, this is the last chance agreement.
"They need to embrace the need for rights for everybody and agree a space where we can all moderate our differences."
DUP leader Arlene Foster said: "We have had a very intensive week of discussions. Progress has been made.
"We have more work to do. I have set out the parameters for a deal. It must be fair and balanced.
"Our negotiating team will continue working next week. I want to see ministerial-led government restored to Northern Ireland.
"I hope that can be achieved by devolved government and will work towards that end."
Round-table talks involving the five main parties and Secretary of State Karen Bradley and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney were cancelled yesterday.
They were postponed to allow Sinn Fein and the DUP to remain at their intensive bilateral negotiations.
Mrs Foster continued discussions with Sinn Fein president-elect Mary Lou McDonald and vice-president-elect Michelle O'Neill, while Mrs Bradley and Mr Coveney met the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance.
The UUP and SDLP voiced deep frustration at being effectively locked out of the process.
A UUP source said: "Sinn Fein and the DUP are clearly running these talks and the two governments are just bystanders."
Mrs Bradley is said to have told UUP leader Robin Swann that she understood his frustration.
He is reported to have replied: "I am not here for a counselling session. I am here to get a government up and running."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said it was clear the negotiations were an "exclusive two-party process", adding: "The SDLP are not here to window-dress but we want to be constructive.
"I've told both governments when the two-party process is concluded and they are ready to engage in five-party negotiations, the SDLP will be ready to negotiate.
"With a hard Brexit coming down the tracks that will cause economic, social and political chaos to our island, I also stressed to the Irish and British governments the need for the formation of a government urgently.
"Everyone across these islands is talking about the threat of a hard border, yet here we have a political vacuum." Mr Eastwood said he had told the two governments to call him when something was happening.
The talks will be on hold over the weekend as Mr Adams steps down as Sinn Fein president at the party's special ard fheis in Dublin. Ms McDonald and Ms O'Neill were selected unopposed to the two most senior leadership posts in the party.
A standalone Irish Language Act has been a red-line issue for Sinn Fein, while Mrs Foster recently reassured an internal DUP gathering that she would never sign off on such a move.
However, the possibility of civil servants finding a technical way to embrace both Irish language legislation and measures on Ulster Scots so that both parties can save face has been explored.
Earlier this week, a senior talks source said that the proposed deal would involve "heavy lifting" by both the DUP and Sinn Fein in terms of convincing their respective bases.