Prime Minister May could visit Northern Ireland as power-sharing deal 'edges closer'
The chances of a deal to restore power-sharing "remain high" as the parties meet today for round-table talks, well-placed Stormont sources said last night.
The DUP and Sinn Fein are continuing to hammer out the details of the proposed agreement that would see the return of the Assembly and the Executive a year after Sinn Fein pulled out.
Political sources said they believed the parties were "still on course" to reach a deal by next week.
"Nothing is guaranteed but there remains reason for optimism," a talks insider said.
It is understood that the Prime Minister may visit Northern Ireland to close any agreement.
"If the two parties do the business, Theresa May could arrive in at the end to say: 'Well done, you've done a good job'," a Stormont source said.
The smaller parties will join the DUP and Sinn Fein for round-table discussions this afternoon.
With Gerry Adams due to step down as Sinn Fein president tomorrow, the party had been keen to have a deal either in place or imminent as he leaves the stage.
Around 2,000 delegates are expected at the RDS in Dublin for the gathering that will see Mary Lou McDonald take over the reins of power and Michelle O'Neill become vice-president.
Both women are expected to deliver what have been billed as keynote speeches at the special ard fheis.
The talks source last night said that the final details of a proposed deal were unlikely to be in place today.
The Belfast Telegraph yesterday reported that there were strong signs of a breakthrough after lengthy bilateral discussions between DUP and Sinn Fein negotiatiors.
A well-placed source said that any likely deal would involve "heavy lifting" by both parties, who would have to sell the agreement to their base.
"The bones of a deal are definitely there," said the source.
"Of course, it could still fall apart as it did last October - and you have to factor that in - but things currently look good.
"We may not have an agreement within hours but we are potentially on the cusp of one within the week." It is understood that progress has been made on the issue of the Irish language, which has been the major stumbling block to an agreement.
The deal would involve Arlene Foster becoming First Minister despite Sinn Fein's previous demands that she step down over the RHI scandal.
Sources also predicted that the issue of same-sex marriage might not be addressed directly, but it was acknowledged by all sides that a change in the law was likely as the DUP no longer possessed the numbers for a petition of concern following last year's Assembly election.
Mr Adams yesterday said that the fate of the talks was too close to call. The Sinn Fein president said gaps remained between his party and the DUP with the negotiations continuing to be a work in progress. He added: "It would be wrong to call it either way. There are still gaps.
"I would like to see it up and running again for the sake of the people."
Mr Adams insisted Sinn Fein wanted to see devolution return.
"Any power-sharing arrangement here has to be truly powersharing," he said.
"It would face big challenges because of Brexit and Tory austerity, but it is still better having local, accountable politicians who you can sack and who you can hold accountable for any decisions that they make.
"But this is the fifth round of talks. There are obviously challenges here for all of us."
A DUP spokeswoman said: "Our team have been working constructively to get devolved government restored.
"Northern Ireland cannot continue without ministers in place to make decisions.
"Our negotiating team has made progress, but there are still a lot of gaps and more work to be done." A mechanism that would ensure the Assembly wouldn't collapse again is under consideration by both parties.
Stormont sources have described Sinn Fein's attitude to these negotiations as "markedly different" to that in last autumn's talks.
"Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald have both been involved and the Sinn Fein MLA negotiators have clearly been given direction to get back into government," the source told yesterday's Belfast Telegraph.
"There has been an impetus to Sinn Fein's involvement which was missing last time round.
"There has been serious engagement from the DUP as well.
"It is obvious that Arlene Foster wants to make things work.
"Both sides genuinely want to see the Executive up and running again."
The source said while the Irish language was top of Sinn Fein's agenda in the talks, the DUP has focused on securing a mechanism that would mean the Stormont institutions were "sustainable" and could never again be collapsed.