Theresa May has called for “one final push” to get a deal on restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland.
Speaking after a series of meetings in Belfast aimed at agreeing a power-sharing deal after more than a year of deadlock at Stormont, the Prime Minister said: “While differences remain, I think there is the basis of an agreement here”.
The positive tone was echoed by the DUP’s Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, while Irish PM Leo Varadkar said he was “very hopeful” of a deal being struck this week.
It is 13 months since Northern Ireland’s devolved government collapsed, after Ms Foster refused to stand down as First Minister over a botched renewable energy scheme
The involvement of the British and Irish PMs in Monday’s discussions raised speculation that an agreement could be imminent.
But while such hopes proved unfounded, all parties said an accord was in sight.
Ms Foster said her party wanted a deal that was “good for everyone” and “sustainable” in the long-term, telling reporters: “Good progress has been made and we will continue to work towards more progress.
“It is about finding an accommodation that recognises the need to respect all languages and all cultures in Northern Ireland and not allow one to dominate over another.”
Ms Foster, who described the tone of the discussions as “very good”, added: “There isn’t a deal yet but there is very good progress and we will keep at it and continue to work on that progress.”
A similar view was expressed by Ms McDonald, who said: “We believe that we are close to an agreement which, certainly, we can put to our grassroots and to the community as a whole.”
The Sinn Fein leader acknowledged “we are not exactly there just yet”, but “there is nothing insurmountable if there is the political will to reach an agreement”.
Ms McDonald said there were no direct talks between her party and the DUP on Monday, adding: “Clearly we need to meet, clearly we need to resolve the outstanding issues.”
Sinn Fein has been steadfast in its refusal to resume power-sharing without a commitment to introduce both an Irish Language Act and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
Last month, the new Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley told the parties time was short but “one last opportunity to reach agreement” remained.
Without an agreement on devolved government soon, Northern Ireland faces the very real prospect of a return to direct rule from Westminster for the first time in a decade.