Stormont deal imminent: Foster to be First Minister, progress on Irish language, same-sex marriage on cards
Source: We may not have an agreement within hours but we are potentially on the cusp of one within the week'
Hopes of a deal to restore power-sharing rose last night as well-placed Stormont sources said there were strong signs of a talks breakthrough.
Round-table discussions due to take place today have been postponed until tomorrow, with insiders revealing that significant progress has been made in bilateral negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
The Belfast Telegraph has been told that any likely deal will involve "heavy lifting" by both parties, who will have to sell the agreement to their base.
"The bones of a deal are definitely there. Of course, it could still fall apart as it did last October - and you have to factor that in - but things currently look good," said a senior talks source.
"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 predicted that the issue of equal 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 election.
A mechanism that would ensure the Assembly wouldn't collapse again is under consideration.
Stormont sources 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 said.
"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."
Secretary of State Karen Bradley yesterday told the House of Commons that a deal to save power-sharing was possible within days.
Updating MPs on the talks, she said she didn't want to jeopardise a successful outcome by giving specific details.
"An accommodation between the parties has not yet been reached, but there is no doubt as to the parties' collective commitment towards the restoration of devolution," Mrs Bradley said.
"I firmly believe that an agreement in the coming days, while not certain, is achievable, and this remains my focus."
A DUP spokesman 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.”
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney also struck an optimistic note.
"There remain challenges for the parties, but I remain convinced that an agreement can and will be reached," Mr Coveney said.
"I am convinced each of the parties want to see the devolved institutions in operation, but of course they must come to an accommodation for each other and that can't be forced on them."
Talks insiders claimed media commentary was "totally out of touch" with the intensity of the discussions between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
"They have been talking at Stormont until 11pm every night this week, then back in at 9am the next morning. The trust between them, which had evaporated this time last year, has also increased," he said.
The source refused to put a precise time-frame on a deal.
"There is no white smoke yet but the signs are very good," he stated.
"It will be a difficult lift for the two parties. I can see some pain ahead for both of them with their base. If this deal goes ahead, neither side will be rolling around in the corridors in celebration."
He insisted Sinn Fein and the DUP jointly acknowledged that Northern Ireland "can't continue in limbo" and "getting the show back on the road is the only option".
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.
Gerry Adams is due to step down as Sinn Fein president on Saturday and the party is keen to have a deal either in place, or imminent, as he leaves the stage with Mary Lou McDonald taking over the reins of power.